Four public defenders think so, but critics worry they’re turning criminal justice reform into an assault on the judiciary.
Major cities across the United States are getting swept up in a movement to replace tough-on-crime prosecutors with reform-minded outsiders. Last November, Larry Krasner, a former federal public defender turned civil rights lawyer, was elected district attorney in Philadelphia. He rapidly set about changing business as usual, refusing to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses and instructing his deputies to begin plea negotiations from the minimum rather than the maximum penalty. (Disclosure: After Krasner was elected, my sister Dana took a job as a policy adviser in his office.)
Similar challenges by self-described reformers have sprung up all over the country. On May 8 in North Carolina, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols was toppled by Satana Deberry, who promised to bring “a culture change in the prosecution of crimes by addressing racial bias.” Like Krasner, Deberry has no prosecutorial experience. In California, incumbent DAs are being challenged by public defenders and civil rights lawyers in races in Oakland, San Diego, and Stanislaus County. Other bids are in the works in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Baltimore; and St. Louis.
But while prosecutors wield enormous power, they’re only part of the reform equation. State court trial judges preside over everything from murder trials to traffic ticket disputes. Because only a tiny fraction of these cases are appealed, their rulings typically go unchallenged. And yet there hasn’t been a similar movement to replace them. Until now.