How district attorneys are leading in a time of crisis

No crisis stops crime. Criminals continue to harm, defraud, rob, rape and kill during floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and wars. So, the fact that we are currently in the middle of a worldwide pandemic hasn’t changed the need for law, order and justice. Even in this new age, every day new offenders’ cases fill the now-virtual desks of prosecutors across the country. The backlog of cases looms large on the courts’ horizon; without juries, our system backs up and stalls. Victim of a crime? Take a number.

But since no crisis stops crime, no crisis should obstruct the criminal justice system either. State’s and district attorneys must find a way, in partnership with law enforcement and the courts, to continue performing our sworn functions: prosecuting those accused of violating not just the law, but the public’s safety, while simultaneously serving as advocates for and protectors of crime victims.

As elected prosecutors from diverse jurisdictions, both of us have witnessed courts closing, criminal investigations halted and our labor forces sent home. We’ve seen widespread secondary problems impacting public safety, too. Limitations to probation supervision and reduced access to drug and mental health treatment mean less help for offenders. Fewer face-to-face interactions between crime victims and victim services means more trauma and less healing.

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Sometimes though, crisis creates opportunities. For example, COVID-19 has forced attorneys and judges to turn to technology for solutions to perform daily tasks. Some district attorneys’ offices are already paperless, meaning that instead of taking files to court, cases are accessed remotely online. An electronic system from top to bottom would make digital court appearances possible and perhaps, preferable. In one Texas venue, for example, jury selection was recently conducted through Zoom. Unfortunately, actual trials using remote technology aren’t likely to become the norm anytime soon: too many government buildings aren’t equipped either electronically or for social distancing—courtroom jury boxes are at the top of that list. Still, we are learning that remote-use software works well for some trial processes, such as hearings, and pleas of guilt. Grand juries in some cities are already hearing witnesses testify remotely.

But identifying solutions to effect necessary changes in operations during crises are not the only tests facing district attorneys. Providing adequate services to crime victims has always been challenging, but prosecutors’ offices nationwide are doubling down on victims’ services—albeit by phone, email and virtual platforms. We are morphing the way we provide service and support to crime victims because absent their cooperation, we generally can’t make the case against an offender—it’s that simple. So in Frederick, Md., and Houston, Texas, our offices have launched social media campaigns in multiple languages to remind crime victims that we’re hard at work during the pandemic, and that we’re still here to serve.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided prosecutors with an opportunity to lead outside the “formal” justice system. These days, our email inboxes and our daily lives are currently filled with inquiry after inquiry from law abiding people wanting to know if they’ll be prosecuted for failing to wear facemasks or opening up their businesses in violation of myriad state and local orders. By holding virtual town halls and community conversations for groups ranging from chambers of commerce to faith communities and school superintendents, district attorneys are explaining the new virtual justice system to leaders in our towns and cities. In these new days and times, when folks are skeptical of the media, law enforcement information coming directly from the chief law enforcement officer of each jurisdiction is not only valuable, it also reaffirms the essential roles of the prosecutor to the public. We do more than investigate and prosecute; we also serve, protect and explain.

The advances in technology and community collaboration, as well as our ability to become virtual advocates for victims and public safety in virtual courtrooms, may forever transform the way we function as prosecutors. But they have neither altered our core duty to defend public safety, nor changed our ethical objectives on how we seek justice for all.

While weathering this latest disaster, we have also learned that as the highest-ranking elected law enforcement leaders in our communities, our presence—whether physical or virtual—is a powerful and reassuring manifestation of our commitment to our communities. We district attorneys stand for all those people who live by the law. We are prosecutors leading in crisis.

Kim Ogg is district attorney of Harris County, Texas, and Charlie Smith is state’s attorney of Frederick County, Md.