How a new generation of prosecutors is driving criminal justice reform outside of Congress
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As prosecutors with almost 40 years of combined experience, we support and understand the public safety imperative that at times necessitates incarcerating those who break the law. But there’s one thing our decades of working in courtrooms and jails across this country has taught us – incarceration alone does not make us safer. In some cases it not only makes us less safe -- by destabilizing families and communities -- but also unjustly criminalizes conduct that is the byproduct of mental illness, drug addiction or the manifestations of poverty.

At the end of the day, what makes – and keeps – communities safe and healthy is a smarter, more holistic approach to serving justice that incorporates strategies to prevent crime before it happens while addressing the underlying concerns that often lead to criminal conduct.

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As the newly-elected district attorney for Brooklyn and the leader of an organization that supports a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors being swept into office in cities like Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Denver and elsewhere – we are putting our experience into action and also turning to the communities we serve for input.

In Brooklyn, that meant the recent convening of more than 60 people who represent criminal justice experts, reform groups, public defenders, law enforcement, formerly incarcerated people, clergy and community members to talk about programs and policies that confront the issues that lead to and prevent crime. We spent hours at the initial meeting discussing the challenges, the opportunities and ways to move forward to addres issues including mental health, bail reform, violence prevention, second chances and more.

We knew a meeting like that had not happened before, certainly not in Brooklyn, nor with such a charge – develop ideas based on the group’s diverse, yet distinct, experiences to enhance fairness and efficacy in our criminal justice system.

And, so began the Justice 2020 Initiative – a novel and ambitious attempt to reimagine what a prosecutor’s office can be and the latest in a wave of creative programs launched by newly-elected prosecutors who do not preach the tough-on-crime policies of the past but emphasize fairness and equal justice.

Brooklyn is uniquely situated to be a laboratory of criminal justice reform. It is a borough of over 2.6 million residents. It is safer than ever (2017 ended with the fewest number of homicides and shootings since record keeping began), but still contains pockets of violent crime. And it has a foundation of progressive practices.

Justice 2020 will yield a plan this spring that will be shared with the public and serve as a blueprint for the borough’s criminal justice strategy – with objectives and metrics – that extend through the year 2020.

What’s happening in Brooklyn and a handful of other cities reflects a movement that rejects the regressive policies of years past that have sadly taken hold anew in Washington, D.C. This movement is centered around data-driven policies that have proven effective in state after state – regardless of which political party is in power. It is about strategies that divert those who needn’t be in our justice system, decrease prison populations and reduce recidivism rates.  

And, it is being led by new thinkers in the most unlikely, and also the most powerful, of roles – prosecutors.

This fledgling movement in Brooklyn – and other cities across the country – is buoyed by Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP), an organization created to bring together these innovative elected leaders. As it is doing for Justice 2020 in Brooklyn, with newly elected Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and with a host of others, FJP provides support for elected prosecutors to collaborate with and learn from national leaders, share their mutual expertise and learn from like-minded colleagues with the goal of designing and implementing strategies that strengthen public safety without an overreliance on warehousing people in jails.

The change we are seeking is profound - the vast majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country are in state, not federal, facilities and most criminal cases are adjudicated on the state and local level.

That is why it is so important that the reforms happen where they will have the most impact – at the local and state level. That is why elected prosecutors are so pivotal to effecting lasting change that will make our communities stronger and safer.

And that is why, at this moment like no other time in history, we are optimistic about the impactful role prosecutors can play in putting into action the best thinking around what can make our communities safer and stronger.   

Eric Gonzalez was recently elected Brooklyn District Attorney, and is the first Latino to ever be elected District Attorney in the State of New York.   Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent fifteen years as a federal prosecutor and is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors committed to new thinking and innovation.