"As the nation grapples with fundamental questions about the nature of our democracy, advocates for criminal justice reform see hope in the nascent focus on one of the most powerful stakeholders in the legal system: the prosecutor.i1Across the country, prosecutor campaigns have shifted from debates over conviction rates and sentence lengths to candidates vying to show their commitment to ending mass incarceration and ameliorating other harms associated with the criminal justice system. While 85 percent of incumbent prosecutors ran unopposed between 1996 and 2006, and 95 percent of elected prosecutors were white in 2015, recent elections saw unprecedented electoral competition and diversity in prosecutor races across the country. As reform-minded prosecutors3 are elected in growing numbers, communities are holding them to account on their campaign promises to bring about deep criminal justice reforms. At the core of this new era of prosecutorial accountability is a more fundamental question: are reformers justified in betting on our democracy, specifically the election of a new generation of prosecutors, as an avenue to justice reform?
The electoral wins of reform-minded prosecutors are certainly cause for optimism, but they also necessitate public discourse about what it means for prosecutors to play a role as agents of change. Certainly the reform agenda is daunting. Even a campaign pledge to end mass incarceration by reducing the number of people in jails and prisons does not explicitly recognize the broader ways in which the state criminalizes and supervises large swaths of the US population, disproportionately low-income individuals and people of color, while affronting common standards of human dignity. With over six million people under correctional supervision,5 excessive use of the arrest powers, and stubbornly high levels of distrust of the criminal justice system in the communities most directly impacted, the need to temper the justice system’s excessive reach remains urgent. By promising to unwind the machinery that created this state of affairs, reform-minded prosecutors are tackling an enormous challenge."
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