Prosecutors Gone Wild

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   For months I had heard the stories of the abuse by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office of two so-called “material witnesses.” The DA was trying to compel them to testify about gang violence, so in each case they were jailed. The young, single mother was being pressured that she risked losing her children to the state while in jail. The young man was being held in order to force him to testify or lose his job because he was incarcerated. Did I mention that these were potential witnesses, even though they were being rough-handled ruthlessly as if they were criminals. Needless to say both of them were African-Americans.

Headlines in the local news services this week trumpeted the fact that prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office finally conceded that they would drop the practice of issuing written notices labeled “supoena” and threatening jail time and fines that they had been using for years to trick potential witnesses into talking with them. Prosecutors admitted that the DA’s office does not have the authority to issue subpoenas without court orders from a judge.

This is not just New Orleans. These kinds of untrammeled, wildly unaccountable actions by local prosecutors from US Attorney offices to local district attorneys is increasingly seen as responsible for the epidemic of mass incarceration and blatant discrimination which has filled the nation’s prisons even while crime rates have been dropping.

This point was made starkly in a recent book by James Foreman, Jr., son of the late civil rights leader, in a book he wrote entitled, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Besides his points on prosecutors, including former US Attorney General Eric Holder during his time as US Attorney in Washington, DC, he puts the shoe firmly on the collusion of local police and prosecutors:

When we ask ourselves how America became the world’s greatest jailer, it is natural to focus on bright, shiny objects: national campaigns, federal legislation, executive orders from the Oval Office. But we should train our eyes, also, on more mundane decisions and directives, many of which took place on the local level. Which agency director did a public official enlist in response to citizen complaints about used syringes in back alleys? Such small choices, made daily, over time, in every corner of our nation, are the bricks that built our prison nation

Another recent author was even more severe in pointing the finger of responsibility at prosecutors by looking at the numbers and the impact of various policy decisions, making the point that…

While violent crime was increasing by 100% between 1970 and 1990, the number of “line” prosecutors rose by only 17%. But between 1990 and 2007 when the crime rate began to fall, the number of prosecutors went up 50% and the number of prisoners went up with it.

None of this has to do with justice. This is state-sanctioned vigilantism shielded by politics and demagoguery. The local prosecutors’ offices is where real reform has to begin.