Who your prosecutor is matters more than you can imagine. I have personally experienced the harm that prosecutors can inflict: For years, I fought to free my now husband Jonathan Irons from prison, where he sat for more two decades over a crime he did not commit. A Missouri prosecutor put him there after withholding fingerprint evidence demonstrating his innocence and relying on an uncertain and unreliable eyewitness identification at trial. Even after Jonathan uncovered that critical evidence years later, the Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt fought to keep him in prison. Both Schmitt and the trial prosecutor cared more about winning than about a man’s life. Jonathan is one of the fortunate ones—if you can consider someone fortunate when he lost 20 years of his life without reason—because now he is home, while AG Schmitt continues fighting to keep at least one other innocent man behind bars.
Jonathan is sadly not alone in his experience. Defense lawyers and advocates have secured more than 2,600 exonerations since 1989. Those wrongful convictions largely occurred because prosecutors lied, cheated, and cared more about winning than obtaining justice. Prosecutors have long abused their power in ways that have wrought destruction on communities without having any positive impact on their safety. These prosecutors cared about holding people presumed innocent in jail before trial, no matter how minor the charge; they cared about doling out lengthy sentences that ensured people would die in prison, even when they had grown and changed and no longer posed a risk to the public. They pushed the war on drugs, which devastated Black and brown communities and made us no safer. These prosecutors had enormous, unbridled power, and they used it in the most harmful ways possible. At present, nearly 2.3 million people are behind bars. It is time for that to change.
In November, there are candidates for prosecutor across the country who can dramatically transform the criminal legal system, who want to respond to the urgency of this moment when people are crying out for racial justice. People should pay attention. The biggest race is in Los Angeles, which has the largest jail population in the country, and where incumbent D.A. Jackie Lacey is running against former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon. The differences between the two could not be starker. Los Angeles has an incarceration rate that is four times San Francisco’s. Lacey has put people in prison for drug use with abandon, has sentenced more people to death than anyone else in the state and almost anyone else in the country, and has not once held a police officer accountable for murdering an unarmed person. To date, she has received more than $4.4 million in support from law enforcement unions desperate to preserve their power, and she has worked for years to oppose common-sense reform in California. Gascon, on the other hand, is promising to shrink the justice system, end the war on drugs, stop the use of the death penalty, hold police accountable, and end the win-at-all-costs attitude that has produced countless injustices, including the incarceration of innocent people like my husband. He is also refusing to accept police union money in his campaign.
The L.A. race may have the largest potential impact, but there are others not far behind in significance. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, has the third largest prosecutor’s office in the nation, an office that has long been an epicenter for punitive policies and prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors have consistently treated children as grown adults, and they have sent 4.5 times more people to prison than anywhere else in the state. Julie Gunnigle is running to upend the system by ending the reliance on wealth-based detention and stopping the criminalization of poverty; she is facing off against Allister Adel, who is pledging to maintain the status quo. In Orlando, Monique Worrell has promised to hold police accountable in a jurisdiction where officers are known for their use of force; she faces an opponent who thinks that prosecutors should lock more people up for even longer terms. There are major races in New Orleans, in Austin, and across Colorado. In most of them, the contrast between candidates is dramatic. People intent on keeping the system harsh and unforgiving face those who want to shrink the system, give people second chances, and hold police accountable.
We ignore these races at our peril. Voters who have elected more progressive prosecutors have seen results quickly. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner has exonerated 14 people in just two and a half years, and he has reduced prison incarceration years in the city by nearly 50%. Kim Gardner in St. Louis has reduced prison incarceration by nearly the same amount, and she has developed a massive list of abusive police officers whose testimony she will no longer rely on to put people in jail and prison, making them largely irrelevant in the police force. Aramis Ayala in Orlando developed a drug diversion program that diverted 65% of those charged with drug offenses away from prison and into a program that helped them find a better future.
My husband lost two decades of his life, and he is not an isolated example. Innocent people go to prison because of unethical prosecutors every day, and so do people who simply don’t belong there. Prosecutors put people in prison for longer than they should, effectively sentencing them to death by incarceration. Voters should pay attention to these races, educate themselves, and know who to support when they vote this November. The stakes could not be higher.