Our criminal legal system was constructed to control Black people and people of color. Its injustices are not new but are deeply rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and legacy of racial violence. The system is acting exactly as it was intended to, and that is the problem.
We should know: We’re Black, we’re female, and we’re prosecutors. We work as the gatekeepers in this flawed system. And we have some ideas for how to fix it.
We met through shared ideas and values, through associates and at conferences. As colleagues, we talk frequently about the challenges we face from entrenched powers determined to safeguard the unjust status quo in too many cities. While each community requires its own unique set of policies and practices, we’ve determined a number of crucial steps every elected prosecutor should commit to in order to transform the broader criminal legal system.
Much of the focus of public debate (and righteous anger) has been on police officers, but we know that prosecutors are not exempt from criticism. As members of law enforcement, we strive to bring justice to victims and make our communities safer for all. The decisions that prosecutors make can either work to rectify the inherent harms in the legal system or perpetuate them. Part of our responsibility, as elected public servants, is to be self-aware and recognize that we are part of the problem. It is our moral and ethical duty to start advancing racial equity-minded policies—and community advocates and voters should hold us accountable for doing so.
Thanks to smartphones and social media, we have seen just the tip of the iceberg of traumatic injustices that float between arrests and prison cells, and at times result in death. While we have worked tirelessly to address these disparities, we understand that they are long-standing, systemic problems that precede our tenures.
We ran for public office on progressive platforms to shrink the system and create a more equitable and just society. We knew it would be difficult and expected pushback from entrenched leaders, police departments, police unions, lead prosecutors in neighboring counties, and even some in our very own offices who have benefited from the status quo to the detriment of our communities. Indeed, the pushback was swift and predictable.
In Boston, we faced resistance even before we took office, and still do to this day, even from some of our colleagues. In Chicago, we were targeted by white nationalists. In St. Louis, our local media was turned against us by those who fear a change in the status quo.
We receive death threats; are called countless racial epithets; are sent nooses in the mail; and in response to the support we show one another’s efforts to bring about systemic change, we’ve been told that slaveowners would rather have picked their own cotton than see how powerful Black women have become.
In short, we are no strangers to criticism from members of law enforcement, and certainly not from their unions.
We are not beholden to the police or their unions. We are beholden to the people who put their faith and trust in us every day to achieve safety and justice through measures that advance racial equity. And that means not just holding police officers accountable, but reimagining the entire criminal legal system—from police, to prosecutors, to judges—and from arrests to charging to sentencing. Each level of the legal system reflects a level of inherent bias, and unless we stop trying to reform the system and instead work to transform it, we will never achieve the kind of change needed to upend a system rooted in slavery.
Working from within, we have begun the steps to rectify past wrongs. We are implementing policies that include declining to prosecute minor offenses, overturning wrongful convictions, refusing to take cases from officers with a history of racial bias and expunging marijuana convictions. And we are currently working within our own offices to make the system fairer and more just. By instituting new policies, diversion efforts and harm-reduction practices, we have seen community safety increase. In Durham, N.C., for instance, we instituted a pretrial release policy that keeps residents out of jail before trial, leading to a 12 percent decline in the county jail population.
Now, we are pushing even further.
We have decided to make the following 11 commitments, and we urge our fellow prosecutors to join us:
1. Do not prosecute peaceful protesters. Citizens have a right to protest, and prosecutions can antagonize marginalized communities.
2. Do not accept any funding from police unions. This will ensure our offices’ independence, and the ability to hold police accountable for injustice and misconduct.
3. Require the review of all available evidence — including body-worn camera and other video footage — in cases that rest solely on the testimony of an officer. One officer’s perspective cannot guarantee the full truth, and therefore all available evidence must be reviewed for the cases that come across our desks.
4. Ban “No Knock” warrants and reexamine our policies for issuing warrants. “No Knock” warrants are a violation of individual rights and represent an overreach of police power. They often result in unnecessary and tragic fatalities, as we saw in the case of Breonna Taylor.
5. Hold police accountable by pursuing criminal charges against officers unlawfully using excessive force and other forms of state-sanctioned violence. Each member of law enforcement must do their part to hold officers accountable for unlawful practices and misconduct to ensure the safety of every person who comes in contact with the legal system.
6. Expand our office policies on declining low-level offenses to cover decisions regarding charging and issuing warrants. By increasing our efforts to decline to prosecute certain low-level offenses, we can work to reverse the disproportionate impact the legal system has on Black people and low-income communities.
7. Financially support and advocate for increases in funding to community-led and community-defined responses, restorative justice and violence prevention programs. Investing in community-led programs is crucial to addressing the racist origins of our legal system.
8. Commit to using our office’s power and platform to advance discussions of divestment from the criminal legal system and toward community-led and community-defined responses to harm. Strong community support, restorative justice practices and diversion practices are key to dismantling the current legal system and shifting its focus from punishment toward justice.
9. Develop grant-based community reinvestment programs to be administered in partnership with community-based partners. Community programs have proved to lessen recidivism and keep people out of contact with the criminal legal system, while keeping communities safer, overall.
10. Solicit feedback from Black and brown community groups we were elected to serve through public, virtual forums in the next two weeks. Only by listening to the most impacted communities and advocates and bringing them to the table, will we truly understand their greatest needs and biggest challenges. Then, we will work together to rectify them.
11. Commit to budget transparency. A budget is a moral document, and our constituents have the right to see how we allocate our budget and what we are funding to invest in community supports and safety.
We ask our colleagues to follow suit.
As the calls for divestment from the criminal legal system, investment in communities, and greater public accountability continue, the targets must be expanded to include all members of the legal ecosystem. Police officers, judges, public defenders, prison guards, clerks, prosecutors and other public servants must also be held accountable for the injustices that our roles perpetuate in a system that evolved from the targeting and controlling of Black people, and be self-critical about what we can do proactively to lessen the harm.
We pledge to hold ourselves accountable, and hold those with whom we work to the same standard. The people who elected us and the communities we serve and protect deserve nothing less.