My third year of law school, I defended people accused of small street crimes, mostly mentally ill, mostly homeless, mostly drug-addicted, all in need of help.
They would come to us, and we would send them away without that help. They were in need of our assistance. But we weren’t giving them any.
Prosecuted, adjudged and defended by people who knew nothing about them.
The staggering inefficiency is what drove me to criminal justice work. The unfairness of it all made me want to be a defender. The power dynamic that I came to understand made me a prosecutor. I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the problem. We know the criminal justice system needs reform, we know there are 2.3 million people in American jails and prisons, making us the most incarcerated nation on the planet.
We know there’s another seven million people on probation of parole, we know that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of colour, particularly poor people of colour.
And we know there are system failures happening everywhere that bring people to our courtrooms.
But what we do not discuss is how ill-equipped our prosecutors are to receive them. When we talk about criminal justice reform, we, as a society, focus on three things. We complain, we tweet, we protest about the police, about sentencing laws about prisons. We rarely, if ever, talk about the prosecutor.
In the fall of 2009, a young man was arrested by the Boston Police Department. He was 18 years old, he was African American and he was a senior at a local public school. He had his sights set on college but his part-time, minimum-wage job wasn’t providing the financial opportunity he needed to enrol in school. In a series of bad decisions, he stole 30 laptops from a store and sold them on the Internet. This led to his arrest and a criminal complaint of 30 felony charges. The potential jail time he faced is what stressed Christopher out the most.
But what he had little understanding of was the impact a criminal record would have on his future. I was standing in arraignments that day when Christopher’s case came across my desk. And at the risk of sounding dramatic, in that moment, I had Christopher’s life in my hands. I was 29 years old, a brand-new prosecutor, and I had little appreciation for how the decisions I would make would impact Christopher’s life.
Christopher’s case was a serious one and it needed to be dealt with as such, but I didn’t think branding him a felon for the rest of his life was the right answer. For the most part, prosecutors step onto the job with little appreciation of the impact of our decisions, regardless of our intent.
Despite our broad discretion, we learn to avoid risk at all cost, rendering our discretion basically useless. History has conditioned us to believe that somehow, the criminal justice system brings about accountability and improves public safety, despite evidence to the contrary. We’re judged internally and externally by our convictions and our trial wins, so prosecutors aren’t really incentivized to be creative at our case dispositions, or to take risks on people we might not otherwise.
We stick to an outdated method, counterproductive to achieving the very goal that we all want, and that’s safer communities. Yet most prosecutors standing in my space would have arraigned Christopher.
They have little appreciation for what we can do. Arraigning Christopher would give him a criminal record, making it harder for him to get a job, setting in motion a cycle that defines the failing criminal justice system today.