Public Rights Project: Rethinking How Prosecutors Protect & Serve Their Communities

Oct 26, 2018

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In 2017, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative launched our Criminal Justice Reform work, as part of the Justice & Opportunity program. We did so with a vision that the justice system must be redesigned, with community health and safety at its core, and with those directly impacted – presently and formerly incarcerated persons, crime survivors, families, and communities — at the helm of its transformation. At that time, we made a commitment to support organizations and efforts working to transform the justice system in new and creative ways, helping to build a better future for everyone.

Today, we’re proud to announce our support of the Public Rights Project, a nonpartisan organization working to empower state and local governments to protect our most basic civil rights and freedoms. They do this by working inside existing structures —like prosecutors’ offices —to catalyze a community-first approach within the justice system.

Photo Credit: Lisa Vortman Photography, taken at Oakland City Hall

Public Rights Project wants to work with prosecutors to rethink what it means to protect our communities, not only through criminal law, but through civil law. Most state and local law offices focus on criminally prosecuting the cases brought to them by police. But many prosecutors have civil authority to address a wide range of wrongs —from wage theft and discrimination to environmental degradation. Civil law is underutilized as a lever to vindicate public rights and help communities, especially those on the margins.

“Local public law offices are one of the great untapped resources in the struggle for social justice,” said Jill Habig, Founder and President of Public Rights Project. “Prosecutors can and should do more than just lock people up —they have the power to be repairers of the breach in their communities —fighting discrimination, enforcing civil rights, and expanding opportunity for all. Public Rights Project is thrilled to partner with CZI to unlock this potential.”

Founded in 2017, this new organization has two primary efforts:

  1. Embedding talented, public-interest minded attorneys in state and local public law offices through their unique fellowship program, with the goal of driving reform at scale.
  2. Pursuing cases that seek to close the gap between the laws written on the books and the laws that are enforced on the ground.

This dual-pronged approach is about driving an uptake in cases that protect personal and community rights and reorienting the justice system away from an exclusive focus on incarceration. Public Rights Project also helps offices with the start up support needed to implement this shift in practices – e.g. comprehensive technical assistance, hands on consulting, access to data and research, and more.

“Our current justice system isn’t necessarily broken,” said Ana Zamora, Criminal Justice Manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “It is working as designed, with a high volume of criminal convictions and less focus on community welfare and safety. We’re supporting Public Rights Project’s work to bring balance to the justice system, leveraging a greater breadth of legal tools to help communities where they need it most.”

“We see a growing demand for the kind of innovative, community-first model that Public Rights Project is building,” said Michael Troncoso, Director of Criminal Justice at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “There’s an emerging generation of prosecutors in America focused on innovation and problem-solving. They’re measuring success differently. They’re using new tools and new models to achieve community safety, while sharply lessening the disparate burdens of incarceration. We’re pleased to support Public Rights Project and other leaders to help accelerate this transformation in prosecution in America.”

Photo Credit: Justin Buell Photography, taken at their recent Fall 2018 Fellows Orientation

About Public Rights Project:

Public Rights Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the gap between the values expressed in our laws and the lived reality of our most vulnerable communities. We empower state and local law offices by providing them with support to implement a scalable model to enforce their residents’ rights to economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice. We are developing a new opportunity for innovation in state and local government.

About CZI’s Criminal Justice Reform Program:

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s criminal justice program focuses on redesigning our justice system through policy reform, technological innovation, and power-building in communities that have historically been excluded from agenda-setting. We support organizations across the country and across traditional political divides doing bold work in criminal justice, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which fights for smart bipartisan sentencing laws; Fair and Just Prosecution, which brings together newly-elected local prosecutors committed to promoting a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility; JustLeadershipUSA, which organizes formerly incarcerated individuals to advocate for reform; and the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which brings together crime survivors to advance criminal justice reform policies. We also partner with organizations using technology in new ways to drive change, like Measures for Justice, an organization that has built an online portal to measure county-by-county criminal justice data around the United States. Our work currently focuses on three main areas: transforming prosecution; creating fair chances for people impacted by the justice system; and growing the justice reform movement.

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