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“Prosecutors can basically do whatever they want. They can choose how harshly to go after someone, how leniently to go after someone; they have enormous and often unaccountable discretion.”
Prof. John Pfaff, Fordham Law school
WHAT’S A “PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR?”
As the traditional, punitive approach to justice has failed and come under fire, and with more incumbents facing challengers than ever before, seemingly every candidate is claiming to be a “progressive prosecutor.” But what does that really mean? And what does meaningful prosecutorial reform look like—the kind that can help repair our broken justice system?
The term “progressive prosecutor” can be misleading—after all, criminal justice reform is one of the few issues that is truly bipartisan, and promoting reform as a local elected prosecutor does not require one to be politically liberal. In fact, some of the most regressive prosecutors in Virginia are Democrats. In addition, many who are calling themselves “progressive prosecutors” are not, in fact, committed to true prosecutorial reform. As used by true reformers, “progressive prosecutor” simply refers to “progress”—the notion that in order to fix our broken justice system, we must move away from the policies and practices that led us to our current predicament.
Learn More about prosecutorial reform
”The 21 Principles of the 21st Century Prosecutor” have rapidly become the gold standard for modern, evidence-based, reform-oriented prosecution. Read more about the 21 Principles and see how your local CAs are stacking up by following the links below…
“Prosecutors wield enormous influence at every stage of the criminal process, from initial charging decisions to the sentences sought and imposed.” Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys have been given endless array of weapons to use in coercing guilty pleas, or obtaining excessive sentences after trial: mandatory minimums, overcharging/charge-stacking, jury sentencing, paltry discovery requirements, and the lack of many basic due process protections that are commonplace in more forward-looking states.
With every weapon of punishment at their disposal, Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorneys can make their cities and counties as unforgiving as they want—or they can use their discretion to promote equal justice, racial fairness, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and eliminate the causes of mass incarceration. They dictate and shape criminal justice policy in every Virginia community, deciding which laws to enforce and what sentences to impose. Moreover, as members of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, the most powerful criminal justice lobby in Virginia, and the main obstacle to almost every sensible justice reform proposal over the years, in many ways they shape the codified laws of our state, as well.
If our broken justice system is to be fixed—if we are to reduce mass incarceration, eliminate racial discrimination, and begin showing mercy and compassion—it starts with our local elected prosecutors. Only if they choose to make it right will we ever “C.A.” difference in Virginia.
What Prosecutorial Reform might look like in practice
Declining to prosecute simple possession of marijuana
Not prosecuting persons for driving on a suspended license, when the license is suspended due to unpaid court costs
Treating the possession of drugs other than marijuana as a misdemeanor offense, or preferably as a behavioral and public health issue, outside of the criminal courts.
Never charging the death penalty—not even as a “bargaining chip”
Never trying children as adults—especially children under 16
Allowing defendants to have their own copies of police reports and other investigative materials, in order that they can be better prepared for trial
Not punishing disproportionately a defendant’s decision to plead not guilty and proceed to trial
…Of People charged with Pot Possession in Arlington are Black
In Arlington County, where black residents make up only 9% of the population, almost 60% of those arrested for marijuana possession are black. There is no difference in marijuana use between races.
The Current age at which a Child in Virginia may be tried as an adult
Virginia law allows prosecutors to try children as adults when they’re as young as 14 years of age, often without even allowing a judge to determine whether the child is amenable to rehabilitation in juvenile court.
…of U.S. Jurisdictions Are Responsible for More than Half of All Executions
Prince William County is one of the 2% of jurisdictions in the United States that is responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Retiring CA Paul Ebert has executed more defendants than any other Virginia prosecutor.