New Prosecutors See Justice, Not Convictions, As Their Goal

By Kevin Penton | October 18, 2020, 10:06 PM EDT

Crafting new incentives for career advancement, retraining employees and designating clear objectives are some of the ways to change the culture inside prosecutors' offices following this year's broad calls for racial justice, several prosecutors said during a virtual discussion headed by Stanford Law School.

Rather than simply trying to push out longer-term employees who may be resistant to change, prosecutors seeking to change their offices' priority from that of racking up convictions to that of achieving justice need to be clear on their objectives and stand firm to resistance, said Chesa Boudin of San Francisco, Marilyn Mosby of Baltimore, and Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn, New York.

While the district attorney's office in Brooklyn was relatively progressive compared to other locales when Gonzalez took over in October 2016, the prosecutor said that nevertheless there were many older employees with the mindset that the criminal justice system should have "consequences," which he believes is code for punishment.

After taking over the Brooklyn office, Gonzalez gathered a group of academics, law enforcement officials, community stakeholders and defense attorneys as part of an effort to craft a new set of standards. Social scientists told Gonzalez that about half a percent of the population commit approximately 60% of the serious violent crimes in Brooklyn.

As a result, his office now strives to focus its prosecutorial efforts on those individuals, while otherwise aiming to reduce its reliance on incarceration as the preferred remedy for law violations, as opposed to other remedial efforts.

"We understood that convictions are dangerous and harmful," Gonzalez said during Thursday's virtual discussion hosted by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School.

When Boudin took over as San Francisco's district attorney in January, one of the first things he did was to hire an individual whose task is to focus on the culture of his office, through the training that is conducted, those who are considered for open positions and ultimately hired, and the integrity of how trials are conducted, he said.

"That's an essential position for me to have," Boudin said.

Boudin has also paid closer attention to clarifying for employees what actions are highly valued and worthy of rewards, whether it be promotions, raises or recognition.

Where in the past a measure of success might have been how many cases were tried to conviction, his office is clear that it values those who are more creative in their interventions, who are more effective at reducing recidivism, and who do a better job at engaging with crime victims, he said.

"You need to create incentives for lawyers to do the kind of work that reflects the values of the people we serve," Boudin said.

Mosby noted that she drew widespread attention when she fired six prosecutors during her first week on the job in January 2015. Since then, many others in the office left their positions, effectively creating opportunities for her to hire new individuals who clearly buy into her more progressive initiatives.

"Changing the culture is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome for any agency, especially a law enforcement agency that has been doing things for a set number of ways," Mosby said.

Mosby brought in the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to conduct training for employees on racial bias and the history of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, and has hosted conversations by those exonerated of wrongful convictions.

While every case potentially presents a different example of how to achieve justice, she wants prosecutors to see that as their overarching goal, rather than simply scoring a conviction.

"The only barometer of success in each of these cases is justice," Mosby said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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