Progressive prosecutors, including Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, are facing a backlash in several cities. Gascon’s counterpart in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, is even facing a recall election. And there is an effort to recall Gascon too – because he did exactly what he said he would do.
Let’s not pretend our criminal justice system hasn’t been badly broken a long time ago. It may work well for people with financial resources, but for everyone else, an encounter with law enforcement or a prosecutor is potentially disastrous.
Let’s also not pretend that there is any legitimacy to the false choice between mass incarceration, with a disregard for innocence and criminal impunity, and the rise in violent crime that Americans have seen in recent years.
I understand the concerns about crime
I understand the dangers of American roads. I came of age in New York when its police department referred to it as “Fear City.”
I now live in Los Angeles and the dangers still deeply concern me. I don’t like having my car broken into more than a few times at work and at home. I don’t like hearing about neighbors being robbed and friends being attacked.
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I didn’t appreciate being robbed in my class by gang members who followed students around campus, and it wasn’t fun to be among students and armed assailants on the edges of campus, in the streets, and in a local park.
Even less attractive was shot with a group of student athletes, although fortunately none of us were hit.
Worst of all was losing students to gang violence or trying to comfort students when they lose a parent or other loved ones to crime and street violence.
Brutality of economic and social injustice
So I understand the arguments of those who say that more police, more arrests and more incarceration will benefit those who live in high crime urban areas the most.
Crime and the threat of violence cause trauma. They erode our quality of life. And it is wrong for someone to threaten us. Locking these people away seems perfectly reasonable.
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But these arguments absolve those of us of privilege from any responsibility for the brutality of economic and social injustice, and they also deny the humanity of those who commit crimes.
I have seen too many of my students turn themselves into thinking they are demonizing anyone. It makes sense to shield ourselves from violent criminals, and it makes sense to see their degeneration as partly our collective failure.
I have visited and corresponded with former students who changed their lives in prison. They and their families may well have suffered from economic and racial injustices, but their only hope for a meaningful future was to take responsibility for what they had done.
I have also taught young people who, without breaking the law, found themselves caught in the vast webs of the criminal justice system. It is a system compromised by political pressure to reduce crime rates, whatever the cost.
Innocent until proven guilty
It is a system in which professional and political ambitions can overshadow the spirit of equal justice, a system that too often compromises the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
This was explained to me by a defense attorney representing a former student of mine who, without being convicted of a crime, spent more than five years behind bars.
This young man’s mother and family are bankrupt trying to get justice and pay a lawyer who wants to believe in his innocence against prosecutors who seem intent on punishing him—with endless delays—for refusing to take a plea deal that would have imprisoned until imprisoned. over 50 years old.
The charges were dropped three times and then refiled, for no apparent reason.
I have attended hearings where prosecutors cited their vacation schedules and a detective’s vacation to justify further delays.
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Meanwhile, a man loses hope and the best years of his life, waiting for his day in court. He was also assaulted and threatened by other inmates and contracted COVID-19 in an overcrowded prison. He was also transferred to a prison so far from where his mother lives that she had to spend an entire day traveling to see him.
I don’t know if this former student is as innocent as he vehemently claims, but if he is found not guilty, he is supposed to be an innocent man in the eyes of our legal system.
The justice system hurts innocent people
The system itself – overburdened, underfunded, cynical, political – harms innocent people who are poor and too often ignores the crimes of the rich and powerful.
If I have one complaint against Gascona and other prosecutors, it’s that they didn’t act quickly and forcefully enough to end the abuses of the justice system.
Some are trying. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner used DNA to verify murder and rape convictions that occurred before such evidence was available. He sought to make justice more possible for victims of crime as well as for immigrants and other marginalized people who get caught up in the system.
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Kim Gardner, attorney for the St. Louis, has similar goals and, like Krasner, has met strong resistance. (Gardner is now facing a reprimand over allegations she withheld evidence from former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ defense team.)
But why is it controversial to want to release innocent people from prison? Every innocent person behind bars suffers in the place of a real criminal who can be free to do more harm.
If we are unwilling to correct these mistakes—if we have fallen into the misconception that justice and mercy make us less safe—then we don’t just have a broken system. we are a broken people.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and his new novel , “Light Man.” Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss.
This column is part of a series from USA TODAY Opinion on police accountability and creating safer communities. The project began in 2021 by looking at qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by looking at various ways to improve law enforcement. This work was made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which provides no editorial input.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Criminal justice is broken: Progressive prosecutors are trying to fix the system