The United States incarcerates more people, in both absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world. For the last four decades, this country has relentlessly expanded the size of our criminal justice system, disrupting too many lives for too long, and wasting trillions of taxpayer dollars. Mass incarceration has torn families and communities apart and it has disproportionately impacted and harmed communities of color and low-income communities. In addition, 40 years of mass incarceration has not made our communities healthier and safer.
We envision a world where the prevention of crime is prioritized by investigating the root causes of crime and working innovatively to provide interventions that hold individuals accountable, address the needs of crime survivors and victim family members, and restore the health of the overall community. We work toward a justice system that is informed by leaders from all sectors, and where incarceration is used sparingly. We see issues like lack of treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, concentrated poverty, educational inequity, homelessness, and desperation as drivers of crime that are most effectively met with treatment and other supportive services, rehabilitation and diversion programs, access to education and jobs, and equitable access to opportunity.
The problem of mass incarceration rests on all of our shoulders, but our locally elected district attorneys play a critical role. If someone is accused of committing a crime, is in not the police but the DA who has the sole power to decide if criminal charges are filed and the severity of those charges. They alone decide whether a person is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor, facing either years in prison or months in jail; whether a person could instead be routed into a diversion program designed to help them rebuild their lives; and whether a person will have charges dismissed and offered a second chance.
From top to bottom, California’s criminal justice system is infected with racial bias. Communities of color are policed more heavily than white, affluent communities. Inherent racial bias plays a hidden role in how prosecutors make charging decisions, how plea negotiations play out, how judges sentence, and how juries weigh evidence. The consequence of our flawed and unjust system is that communities of color, especially Black families and children, have suffered the worst devastation from our system of mass incarceration.
In the context of historical oppression, we must strive to end overcriminalization and ensure fair treatment of all people. In order to do so, we must proactively acknowledge the harms the criminal justice system has wreaked on communities of color, especially Black communities. In addition, we must proactively work to transform the system to end these racial disparities.
As the gatekeepers into the criminal justice system, DAs play a critical role in the transformation needed to repair, remedy and restore communities of color.