It’s time for DA associations to stop standing in the way of reform

Last week, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón — the head of the largest DA’s office in the nation — resigned from the California District Attorneys Association (CDDA), the association of prosecutors in the state, noting that the organization has “lost touch with the public its members are elected to represent and serve.”

His resignation highlights the troubling reality of prosecutor unions and associations, which have largely escaped the scrutiny that police unions have faced in recent years. Tethered to past “tough on crime” thinking, these organizations have acted as powerful obstructionists of reform.

Gascón’s platform embraced several groundbreaking concepts, including ending the use of most sentencing enhancements in order to reduce lengthy prison sentences, which fail to keep communities safe and often increase the risk of future crime, at enormous cost to taxpayers.

But immediately after Gascón took office, opponents of reform sued to halt implementation of the very policies the people of Los Angeles County elected him to carry out. In a move that could potentially limit the discretion of their own elected prosecutors, CDAA filed an amicus brief supporting the challenges and interjecting itself into the lawsuit.

As Gascón’s notes in his resignation letter, while voters in California have welcomed change, CDAA has a long history of blocking data-backed criminal justice reforms. And sadly, this exemplifies a broader trend: the position of many prosecutors’ associations around the country that there is only one acceptable way to prosecute cases—as harshly as possible.

Prosecutors’ associations came to prominence in the 1960s, and have become key players in the “tough-on-crime” criminal justice establishment. As the “War on Crime” gained ground, they won plum positions as members on advisory boards and commissions that guided state policy in these areas. With this newfound influence, the associations lobbied for tougher and tougher laws — and consistently opposed reform efforts.

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Today, associations function as modern police unions do, reflexively supporting their members’ positions. But tellingly, this lockstep defense stops when DAs seek to scroll back past punitive approaches.

In Florida, when State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she wasn’t going to seek the death penalty, then-Gov. Rick Scott took away all her death-eligible cases. Ayala filed suit and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association not only wasn’t on her side, they actually supported the governor’s erosion of its members’ discretion in an amicus brief that embraced the dangerous precedent of limiting the autonomy of elected prosecutors.

Likewise, when the Pennsylvania state legislature stripped reformer Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office of the exclusive ability to prosecute some gun crimes, giving the state attorney general the concurrent power to pursue these cases, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association had little interest in defending DA Krasner’s autonomy.

Prosecutors’ associations aren’t always opponents to change.

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Source:: Los Angeles Daily News

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