Recent years have seen America focusing on the “war on crime” and further actions which uphold the “tough on crime” stance. However, many attorneys who are leaning away from such ideas and instead focusing on reform are winning votes as citizens shift their ideas about incarceration as a treatment for crime. Below are five attorneys who have advanced their criminal law careers while focusing on reform instead of incarceration.
Scott Miles (Chesterfield County, Virginia)
Before Democrat Scott Miles won Chesterfield County’s top prosecutor position, the spot had been previously held by Republican prosecutors for 30 years. Miles’ win may indicate a change in how the general public views law enforcement’s use of incarceration as the answer to most crimes.
For example, Miles won district attorney votes by voicing his concern over incarceration, favoring reform instead. For starters, he promised to get rid of cash bonds for nonviolent offenders and reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors for those charged with simple possession. Instead of focusing on how many convicted criminals the judicial system could put away, Miles wanted to focus on rebuilding the community.
In an interview with Richmond Times, Miles said he has taken issue with “the quality of [Chesterfield County] office’s service to the community.” He voiced similar concerns when he noted that instead of balancing a tough stance on violent crime with rehabilitation services as other counties do, Chesterfield County was more focused on only the former and none of the latter.
Miles noted that “the prosecutorial philosophy that has prevailed in [Chesterfield County’s] courthouse for the past 30 years has been a war-on-drugs philosophy.” He wants to update how crimes are handled, not just sticking to the “war on drugs playbook” from 1987. This mindset won him the district attorney position in a 30-year upset.
Rachael Rollins (Suffolk County, Massachusetts)
Rachael Rollins is the first woman of color to hold the district attorney position in Suffolk County, which contains Boston. Her campaign featured extensive reforms instead of the tough on crime mindset, winning her 80.6 percent of the votes.
Rollins has been noted saying, “we need to be smart on crime rather than tough on crime.” Among her solutions is a proposal to decline prosecuting for 15 lower level crimes including: trespassing, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, minor alcohol possession and drug possession, amongst others. Instead, she wants prosecutors to look for different solutions before arraignment.
An article in The Washington Post notes Rollins saying that “accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration.” Instead, she hopes that prosecutors can use “different tools…to hold people accountable” such as mandatory community service or education programs. She notes that Massachusetts has a 67 percent recidivism rate, so “trying to arrest our way to a solution” with lower level crimes is not working.
Her methods of reform are being met with some resistance in the law enforcement agencies who have held “tough on crime” stances for decades. Yet, if her easy win is a sign of changing times, then reform over incarceration is in.
John Creuzot (Dallas County, Texas)
One of John Creuzot’s campaign platforms was to reform mass incarceration. He led with the slogan “Justice is HARD work. Justice is HEART work,” winning voters with his empathetic stance towards criminal justice reform.
Creuzot believes that there are too many people in America’s jails and prisons. He wants to reform the bail bond system in order to get rid of pre-trial detention of those who are not flight risks but cannot get out of jail because they are poor. He also notes that removing any profit motive from the prison system is a necessary step to reform.
He also intends to: train and motivate up and coming prosecutors to distinguish violent criminals from non-violent criminals, encourage bail reforms, improve diversion programs, increase efforts to release innocent people from prison and reassess the appropriateness of low-level marijuana arrests. These reform-based goals won him the position of Dallas County District Attorney.
Wesley Bell (St. Louis County, Missouri)
Wesley Bell made headlines when he defeated Robert McCulloch, who had held the seat for 28 years but garnered recent ire for his failure to bring charges against the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. Bell’s reform-minded campaign easily won him the district attorney position after many were tired of McCulloch’s complete ineffectiveness over nearly three decades.
Bell has promised to get rid of cash bail for nonviolent offenders and to increase programs that give defendants a way to avoid jail by paying restitution, completing community service or treatment programs. For example, in a New York Times interview, he notes that if nonviolent offenders with drug addictions are placed in jail, that system only increasing the recidivism rate. Instead of incarceration, he wants to focus on helping those who are poor and rehabilitating those with drug or mental health issues.
He has also announced that marijuana possession under 100 grams and failure to pay child support will no longer be prosecuted. Also, cash bail will no longer be required for misdemeanors. Finally, prosecutors may no longer threaten witnesses to testify. Bell’s campaign promise of reform, to “fundamentally change the culture” of the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office, won him the district attorney position in a 28-year upset.
Larry Krasner (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania)
No one expected Larry Krasner to win the Philadelphia district attorney position. As a defense attorney, he has had those in office constantly accuse him of having no prosecutor experience. Not only that, but his aversion to the death penalty and outspoken reform support made many in office roll their eyes and laugh when he announced his bid to become district attorney.
In an interview with The New Yorker, he admits to writing his campaign platform tenets on a napkin: eliminate cash bail, address police misconduct, end mass incarceration. He had witnessed firsthand how Philadelphia’s high incarceration rate — the highest of America’s ten largest cities in 2015 — was not working to control crime or prevent recidivism. Furthermore, the “tough on crime” policies touted by those in office had fallen completely out of synch with Philadelphia’s growing population.
Instead, he decided that he would focus on reform. Among the policies he endorses are no prosecution for marijuana possession, no required bail for those accused of nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors and no prosecution for sex workers with less than three criminal convictions. He has been noted saying that “a dollar spent on incarceration should be worth it, otherwise that dollar may be better spent on addiction treatment and public education.” His reform-minded platforms helped earn him the district attorney position.\
Liz S. Coyle is the Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law. She also serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department. She is responsible for internal and external communications for the firm.