Nov 22, 2019 · 7 min read
“As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen firsthand how the daily decisions prosecutors make in court can have life-altering outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. One prosecutorial decision — to seek a felony or a misdemeanor, to insist on jail or treatment — can reverberate for a lifetime. It is an emerging truism that prosecutors can and should be more actively engaged in reforming the justice system to better serve our society, and the good news is that there’s a real movement budding…Groups and leaders across the country and across the political spectrum are looking to prosecution as a key focal point in transforming our ailing justice system.” — Michael Troncoso, Head of the Justice & Opportunity Initiative
As the most powerful decision-makers in the criminal justice system, prosecutors wield enormous discretion in deciding who to charge, what charges to bring, and what pleas to offer. Given that half of all U.S. adults have an immediate family member that was or is incarcerated, and that over 90 percent of the incarcerated population is held at the state and local level, our local prosecutors matter more than ever.
The practice of prosecution has changed very little in decades or more. Conviction rates remain a primary measure of success, and there are few mechanisms to better understand the actual human and societal impact of prosecutors’ everyday decisions on communities. The position we are in now — as the world’s top incarcerator — is largely thanks to an era in which prosecutors sought maximal punishment for more people than ever, even as crime itself dropped to historic lows.
Fortunately, the tide is turning.
There are a growing number of leaders working to transform prosecution to help improve outcomes and create a fairer, more just system. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative seeks to support them in the difficult work of shifting how prosecution is practiced — how key decisions and processes impact people for generations. We focus on:
Fostering Collaboration in the Field: Historically, prosecutors seeking practice change have had to “go it alone” — often lacking strong networks to learn from one another and begin to redefine success. We support organizations that are creating new pathways for collaboration so that prosecutors can learn together and scale practices that align with the needs of their communities:
- R Street Institute, American Conservative Union Foundation and Right on Crime: These groups are collaborating to develop a policy roadmap for reform-minded conservative prosecutors, and to establish a shared vision of center-right prosecution that embraces these policies.
- Prosecutor Impact (Third Sector New England): CZI supports Prosecutor Impact’s program to train new prosecutors on interventions that help address the root causes of crime and promote safe communities.
- Fair and Just Prosecution: Brings together newly-elected local prosecutors committed to promoting a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility. They are supported by FJP’s network through ongoing information sharing, research and resources, in-person convenings, and technical assistance.
- For the People (The Gathering for Justice): Building a pilot program to support a network of district attorney’s offices in California to implement AB 2942, the first legislation of its kind in the country that allows prosecutors to reevaluate past sentences and petition for sentence reductions and prison release.
Serving the Community: We fund efforts that help prosecutors better learn from — and, critically, be more accountable to — the communities they serve. This means finding new ways to amplify community needs to local prosecutors, and also working to ensure that the public can embrace their role in choosing prosecutors that truly represent their interests. Some of our grantees in this space include:
- Vera Institute for Justice: CZI supports the Vera Institute’s “Reshaping Prosecution” program to help newly elected prosecutors make good on their election promises to reduce mass incarceration and address racial disparities in the system. The program partners with prosecutor offices across the country in deep engagements that use data-driven approaches to implement policy and practice change to reduce incarceration, promote racial equity, and increase transparency and accountability to the community.
- Accountable Justice Action Fund: The Accountable Justice Action Fund (AJAF) works to equip national and local community groups to increase accountability around local prosecutor elections. Today, nearly all prosecutors run unopposed, and women and people of color are vastly underrepresented among sitting DAs. AJAF helps ensure that communities most impacted by crime and incarceration have a meaningful chance to choose prosecutors who will represent their interests and lead on critical reforms.
Continuous Learning: All prosecutor offices — across the regional and political spectrum — should have the tools and resources they need to better understand the impact of their practices, and to make informed, outcome-driven decisions. At CZI, we support innovative, learning-centric approaches to enhancing public safety, community healing, and rehabilitation.
Can prosecutorial practices be tied to better public safety? Can technology support more equitable decision making and empower prosecutors to root out practices that lead to poor long-term outcomes and over-punishment? We are already learning answers to these questions from pioneers in this field, like:
- NYU Marron Institute: Under its BetaGov program, NYU Marron is partnering with prosecutors in Wisconsin to understand what factors drive charging decisions around felonies and misdemeanors, statewide.
- Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office: CZI partnered with DA Larry Krasner’s office to help build an organizational system for tracking and understanding key criminal justice metrics. Using this early work as a foundation, the office built and released a public-facing dashboard so the community can monitor the local system in real-time.
- San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office: CZI is in the early stages of a collaboration with District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar to examine how investments in technology and additional analytic support can inform prosecutorial decision-making practices in Stockton, CA.
- Public Safety Lab, New York University: CZI is supporting a Public Safety Lab project to estimate the causal effects of prosecutorial decisions on defendant recidivism, using data from the St. Louis County and Suffolk County District Attorney’s Offices.
- National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and The Urban Institute: CZI is supporting a joint effort between the NDAA and the Urban Institute to catalog and assess prosecutor-led diversion programs that promote effective alternatives to incarceration. The goal is to better understand — and share knowledge around — diversions that are more responsive to individual and community needs.
Looking ahead, CZI will continue to partner with organizations that are working to transform prosecution in a myriad of ways. We commit to working in partnership with organizations, prosecutors and their staff, the communities they represent, and the people and families whose lives have been or will be impacted by a prosecutor’s decision — including with victims of crime and those who have caused harm. Only through deep collaboration with those committed to reform can we ensure that the justice system truly lives up to its name.
CZI’s Criminal Justice Reform program supports efforts on the frontlines of reform through a unique combination of grantmaking, policy and advocacy work, research, technology development, and movement capacity building efforts. We focus on three key areas: transforming prosecution, expanding opportunity for people impacted by the justice system, and strengthening the reform movement.
Please contact us at CriminalJustice@ChanZuckerberg.com to learn more about our work, funding opportunities, and partnerships.