As voters head to the polls, Vera’s guide aims to educate communities and prosecutors on how prosecutors can use their power to end mass incarceration and advance equal justice
Press Release – New York, October 25th, 2018 – Today, the Vera Institute of Justice announced its new Reshaping Prosecution program, along with a web-based guide that will educate and empower community members to learn more about the decisions prosecutors – most of whom are elected – make and the impact they have on the community. Through Reshaping Prosecution, Vera will work with reform prosecutors to implement policies that will help reduce mass incarceration and advance equal justice.
The program builds on Vera’s past work identifying the role of prosecutors in mass incarceration and supporting prosecutors committed to reform. The Reshaping Prosecution program draws on that work and new public interest in the role of prosecutors, with work underway in the City of St. Louis, Missouri; Contra Costa County, California; the 16th Circuit of Mississippi; and Jacksonville, Florida.
After spending the last 12 years serving as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, DC, and in policy advisory roles for the Department of Justice and the White House Office of Vice President Joseph Biden, Jamila Hodge will lead the Reshaping Prosecution program. She said, “As criminal justice reform efforts begin to focus on the prosecutor’s vital role in ending mass incarceration and addressing racial disparity, it is an honor and a privilege to work with reform-minded prosecutors across the country to rethink their role. We work together to identify and implement policies that combat the overuse of incarceration, and address the racial inequities that have caused the gross over-representation of minority communities in our jails and prisons. Vera has a long history of using research to drive sustainable policy change, and it is exciting to apply that expertise to influence prosecutors, one of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system.”
“Reform of the prosecution function is one of the most important missions in justice reform today. For too long prosecutor offices have played a decisive role in both maintaining and powering the status quo of mass incarceration and racial disparity,” said Nick Turner, President and Director of Vera. “Now, remarkably, there is a citizen and advocacy movement catalyzing change through the election of a new breed of prosecutor. Reshaping Prosecution’s critical and essential role will be to work deeply with these new prosecutors and help them translate ambitions into real, lasting change in their offices. This is the hard work of culture change, using data to pick the practices that must be reformed, partnering effectively with community and assessing impact.”
Prosecutors exercise tremendous power throughout the life of a case – everything from whether the case is charged to bail set, pleas offered, and the sentence an individual faces upon conviction. Yet prosecutors have very little oversight, and the communities they serve know very little about how that power is used in spite of the significant impact of their decisions. Communities, for the first time in decades, are electing prosecutors who are committed to using their power to minimize the overreach of the criminal justice system, make the system fairer, and promote community safety. Vera is helping select prosecutors to develop and implement data-driven policies and practices that reflect that commitment and deliver concrete, measurable changes.
Reshaping Prosecution represents the latest in Vera’s work around justice reform in prosecutors’ offices. In 2005, Vera launched the Prosecution and Racial Justice Program and partnered with prosecutors’ offices in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), North Carolina; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; San Diego, California; and New York County, New York, to understand how prosecutorial discretion at key decision points contributed to racial disparities in those justice systems. Vera’s report, The Anatomy of Discretion, examined how prosecutors in two offices made decisions at key points in a case to determine what influenced the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. And, in 2014, Vera analyzed decisions made by prosecutors in the New York County District Attorney’s Office in more than 200,000 cases to understand how those decisions might contribute to racially disparate outcomes.
Vera’s new guide, Unlocking the “Black Box” of Prosecution, encourages prosecutors’ offices and the public to examine the policies and practices that shape the key decisions prosecutors make and urges prosecutors to:
- Review charging decisions and use their discretion to decline poverty-based offenses and other low-level crimes.
- Reform bail practices in order to stop detaining people solely because they cannot afford to pay.
- Increase the use of diversion programs and other alternatives to incarceration to address the underlying drivers of criminal behavior.
- Ensure that all of the evidence is provided to the defense in a timely manner.
- Reduce case processing delays that lead to long jail stays.
- Recommend sentences that consider the whole person and reduce the over-reliance on incarceration.
This work was made possible, in part, with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which believes in testing and scaling new tools and new models that help transform prosecution to be a data-driven, responsive, and accountable practice.
Statements of Support
“Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program is the new frontier of prosecution reform. At this historic time when prosecutors are the focus of reform efforts in ways we have not seen before, communities are demanding change by electing lead prosecutors who reflect their values. While the election of reform-minded prosecutors is an important step, they must be equipped with the research and tools they need to implement sustainable policy reforms that advance racial justice and end mass incarceration. Given Vera’s long history of work on prosecution and racial justice issues—using data to drive change—it is well-suited to provide this support.”
— Professor Angela J. Davis, American University Washington College of Law
“The Contra Costa County community is demanding a fairer and more just response to the problems that we face. We are thrilled to partner with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop innovative solutions that minimize the overreach of the criminal justice system–especially for our youth, while keeping our communities safe. Vera’s long history of using research and data to drive change makes them the perfect partner to deal with the complex challenges before us.”
— Diana Becton, District Attorney, Contra Costa County, California
“Working with the Vera Institute of Justice gave me a new understanding of the number of people detained in our local jails, and the amount of time it took to get a court date. Having a clear understanding of the problem allowed me to work with our Sheriff and Court system on a solution. Instead of having people detained for up to three months for minor violations waiting for a court date, we are working to cut that time down to two weeks or less for most cases. I look forward to a continued partnership with Vera to develop new approaches—rooted in data—to improve our justice system.”
— Scott Colom, District Attorney, Mississippi 16th Circuit
“For too long we have attempted to address crime in St. Louis primarily through trying to incarcerate our way out of the problem. We know that this has not made our city safer, in fact, it has harmed many of our communities—especially communities of color. Working in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice for the past year, I have taken several meaningful steps to limit pre-trial detention for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases, and to employ new solutions, like innovative diversion programs, that address the drivers of criminal behavior. Vera’s data-driven approach helps to ensure that the reforms we implement are based on evidence, and that the solutions include measurable outcomes.”
— Kim Gardner, Circuit Attorney, City of St. Louis, Missouri
Link to full guide: https://www.vera.org/unlocking-the-black-box-of-prosecution