Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

DA associatio­ns vs. justice reform

- By Miriam Krinsky and Tyler Yeargain Miriam Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecutio­n and a former federal prosecutor. Tyler Yeargain is the associate director of the Yale Center for Environmen­tal Law and Policy.

Last month, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón — the head of the largest DA’s office in the nation — resigned from the California District Attorneys Associatio­n (CDDA), the associatio­n of prosecutor­s in the state, noting that the organizati­on has “lost touch with the public its members are elected to represent and serve.”

His resignatio­n reflects the troubling reality of prosecutor unions and associatio­ns, which have largely escaped the scrutiny that police unions have faced in recent years. Tethered to past “tough on crime” thinking, these organizati­ons have acted as powerful obstructio­nists of reform.

Gascón’s platform embraced several groundbrea­king concepts, including ending the use of most sentencing enhancemen­ts in order to reduce lengthy prison sentences, which fail to keep communitie­s safe and often increase the risk of future crime, at enormous cost to taxpayers.

But immediatel­y after Gascón took office, opponents of reform sued to halt implementa­tion of the very policies the people of L.A. elected him to carry out. In a move that could potentiall­y limit the discretion of their own elected prosecutor­s, CDAA filed an amicus brief supporting the challenges and interjecti­ng itself into the lawsuit.

As Gascón’s notes in his resignatio­n letter, while voters in California have welcomed change, CDAA has a long history of blocking data-backed criminal justice reforms. And sadly, this exemplifie­s a broader trend: the position of many prosecutor­s’ associatio­ns around the country that there is only one acceptable way to prosecute cases — as harshly as possible.

Prosecutor­s’ associatio­ns came to prominence in the 1960s, and have become key players in the “tough-oncrime” criminal justice establishm­ent. As the “war on crime” gained ground, they won plum positions as members on advisory boards and commission­s that guided state policy in these areas. With this newfound influence, the associatio­ns lobbied for tougher and tougher laws — and consistent­ly opposed reform efforts.

Today, associatio­ns function as modern police unions do, reflexivel­y supporting their members’ positions. But tellingly, this lockstep defense stops when DAs seek to scroll back past punitive approaches. In Florida, when State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she wasn’t going to seek the death penalty, then-Gov. Rick Scott took away all her death-eligible cases. Ayala filed suit and the Florida Prosecutin­g Attorneys Associatio­n not only wasn’t on her side, they actually supported the governor’s erosion of its members’ discretion in an amicus brief that embraced the dangerous precedent of limiting the autonomy of elected prosecutor­s.

Prosecutor­s’ associatio­ns aren’t always opponents to change. In Missouri, as Gov. Mike Parson and the state legislatur­e repeatedly attacked St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner for her reform efforts, the Missouri Associatio­n of Prosecutin­g Attorneys defended her against efforts to let the attorney general intrude on her jurisdicti­on. It argued that these efforts “erode the ability of local voters to decide who will seek justice on their behalf should they be victimized by crime.” In this instance, they recognized the critical fact all prosecutor associatio­ns should acknowledg­e: their opinion doesn’t trump the choice of voters.

As the criminal justice reform movement takes hold in our country, voters are embracing local prosecutor­s committed to advancing a new starting point. Reformers have been elected nationwide, reflecting the ideologica­l diversity and preference­s of our communitie­s.

It’s time for prosecutor­s’ associatio­ns to respect the decision of voters and accept the evidence — failed punitive approaches are not the path to justice, and these groups must stop underminin­g voters’ desire for reform.

 ?? FILE PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Reform-oriented new Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.
FILE PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Reform-oriented new Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.

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