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Not a Fix-All

Electing progressive prosecutors is but one tool in a multifaceted, collaborative approach to ending mass incarceration.


The dark shadow of mass incarceration hangs heavy over the U.S. criminal legal system. Addressing the role of prosecutors is undoubtedly critical, but it’s just one piece of a complex puzzle. Premal Dharia, James Forman, Jr., and Maria Hawilo’s article raises essential questions about the potential and limitations of prosecutorial reform in dismantling mass incarceration.

Prosecutors hold immense power, making pivotal decisions that shape the lives of countless individuals. They decide whether to bring charges, what charges to bring, and what plea bargains to offer. Reform-minded prosecutors, who prioritize alternatives for nonviolent offenses, racial justice in sentencing, and rehabilitation over punishment can significantly impact incarceration rates. These prosecutors have the potential to transform the system from within, reducing the number of people incarcerated and addressing the racial disparities that plague our justice system. However, placing the burden of reform solely on their shoulders overlooks the broader systemic issues that perpetuate mass incarceration.



This response essay is part of a roundtable about prosecutors inspired by the new collection Dismantling Mass Incarceration.  Read the entire roundtable here.

Electing progressive prosecutors is necessary but not the fix-all it’s been portrayed as. Critics rightly argue that a fundamentally flawed system can railroad even the most well-intentioned prosecutors. The legal framework within which they operate often limits their ability to implement meaningful change. Therefore, reform efforts must extend beyond the prosecutor’s office. Limiting prosecutorial discretion, particularly in mandatory minimums and charging decisions, is crucial. These limitations must be coupled with measures ensuring equitable outcomes, such as empowering public defenders and strengthening independent oversight bodies to create a balanced system. Public defenders, representing the most vulnerable defendants, must have the resources and support to counter prosecutorial power effectively.

The path to dismantling mass incarceration requires a comprehensive approach. Decriminalizing certain offenses, especially those disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, can divert resources to addressing the root causes of crime. For instance, drug offenses have led to the incarceration of millions of individuals, predominantly people of color, for nonviolent actions. Shifting the focus from punishment to treatment and prevention can significantly reduce the prison population while addressing the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior. Revising sentencing guidelines to focus on proportionality and rehabilitation creates a fairer system that prioritizes public safety and offers a genuine chance for reintegration. This means reevaluating the sentences for various crimes and ensuring they are commensurate with the offense’s severity.

Investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs and mental health resources, presents a more constructive approach. Diversion programs—which redirect offenders away from the traditional criminal legal process and toward community service, education, or treatment programs—can be highly effective in reducing recidivism. These initiatives address the underlying issues leading individuals to commit crimes, thus reducing recidivism. Mental health resources, in particular, are critical, as many incarcerated individuals suffer from untreated mental health conditions. Providing adequate mental health care can prevent these individuals from entering the criminal legal system in the first place.

Robust reentry programs that provide support with housing, job training, and education are vital for successful reintegration. When individuals return to society after serving their sentences, they often face significant barriers to finding employment, securing housing, and accessing education. Comprehensive reentry programs tailored to our communities, designed by experts of direct impact, can help them overcome these obstacles, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

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Achieving lasting change also requires clear and persuasive communication. Public education campaigns, multi-stakeholder dialogues, and framing the issue around the human cost of mass incarceration are essential. Public education campaigns can raise awareness about the systemic issues contributing to mass incarceration and the need for reform. Multi-stakeholder dialogues involving law enforcement, community leaders, policymakers, and directly impacted individuals can foster collaboration and generate innovative solutions. Building a broad coalition that recognizes the social and economic burden of over-incarceration is crucial to creating the political will necessary for reform. This coalition must include a diverse array of stakeholders, including those directly impacted by the criminal legal system, to ensure that the reforms are comprehensive and just.

While addressing the role of prosecutors, especially progressive ones, is vital, it’s not a solitary solution. Limiting prosecutorial power, pursuing sentencing reform and decriminalization, investing in communities, and ensuring successful reentry must all work in concert. Combining these efforts with clear communication and collaboration allows us to move from critiquing a broken system to building a more just and equitable future. By taking a holistic approach that addresses every stage of the criminal legal process, from arrest to reentry, we can create a system that truly serves justice and promotes public safety.

To emphasize, the criminal legal system’s transformation necessitates a concerted effort from multiple fronts. The overreliance on punitive measures must be replaced with strategies that prioritize restoration and community well-being. This requires a shift in mindset from punishment to support, focusing on preventing crime through social investments rather than solely reacting to it. We must advocate for policies that support families, provide quality education, and ensure access to health care, which are critical in reducing crime and building stronger communities.

Equally important is the role of data and research in driving these reforms. Collecting and analyzing data on prosecutorial decisions, sentencing patterns, and reentry outcomes can help identify disparities and areas for improvement. Transparency in this data allows for accountability and informed policymaking. Moreover, engaging with academic institutions and research organizations can provide valuable insights and evidence-based solutions to the challenges within the criminal legal system.

Public perception and media representation also play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. Media coverage often sensationalizes crime, leading to public fear and support for harsher penalties. We must work to change this narrative by highlighting stories of successful rehabilitation and the benefits of restorative justice practices. By shifting the focus from fear to understanding and empathy, we can garner broader support for humane and effective reforms.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a criminal legal system that reflects our values of justice, equity, and humanity. This involves not only reforming the mechanisms of the system but also addressing the societal conditions that lead to criminal behavior. By investing in people and communities, promoting fairness in the justice process, and ensuring that every individual is treated with dignity, we can build a system that truly serves the needs of society.

While prosecutors are integral to reform efforts, a multifaceted, collaborative approach is required to dismantle mass incarceration effectively. We must expose the current system as unjust and overly carceral while working from within to create a fairer, more humane system. This involves not only electing progressive prosecutors but also enacting broader reforms that limit prosecutorial discretion, decriminalize certain offenses, and invest in community-based alternatives and reentry programs. We can achieve meaningful reform and support nationwide through proactive and innovative strategies. Together, we can move from a system that prioritizes punishment to one that values justice, rehabilitation, and the dignity of all individuals.

Image: Martin Adams/Unsplash/Inquest