Miriam Krinsky On The Work Of Reform-Minded Prosecutors

By Andrea Keckley | October 28, 2022, 6:01 PM EDT ·

Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, recently came out with a book chronicling the lives and work of prosecutors throughout the U.S. who have used the power of their offices to pursue a reformist vision of criminal justice.

Miriam Krinsky

"Change From Within: Reimagining the 21st Century Prosecutor" tells the stories of 13 former and current prosecutors who have held leadership positions, most commonly as district attorneys. Many of them grew up seeing the criminal justice system's vast footprint in their lives and went on to work toward a more compassionate, restorative approach.

Attorneys like these have sometimes been called part of a progressive prosecutor movement, but in her book, Krinsky calls the reform movement broad and bipartisan.

"District attorneys with a broad range of political ideologies are rallying around those objectives and the need for transformation," she writes.

Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor in the mid-Atlantic and Los Angeles, where she helped implement reform measures within the Los Angeles Police Department. As an assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, she served as chief of the general crimes and criminal appellate sections. Today, she is part of the American Law Institute's sentencing project advisory group and the ALI Principles of Policing advisory group.

All 13 profiles featured in Krinsky's book are accompanied by visual works from formerly incarcerated artists. Nine artists were selected thanks to a partnership between Fair and Just Prosecution, or FJP, and Mural Arts Philadelphia with the support of the Art for Justice Fund.

Here, Krinsky discusses the experiences of these prosecutors and the future they are trying to build. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As you spoke with some of these reform-minded prosecutors throughout the U.S., what were some common themes that stood out to you?

I think one of the common themes, and in part, it was a reason for the desire, and in my mind, the burning need to put a book like this out there, is that these individuals are so incredibly different from past generations of elected prosecutors, or even sort of the norm of prosecutors that I saw in the '80s, and '90s, and that populate offices around the country.

These are individuals, many of whom never spent time as prosecutors before moving into that leadership role, many of whom bring tremendous life experiences that found them on the other side of the justice system or at risk themselves of ending up in the justice system.

Many of them have loved ones who were part of the justice system. And so they bring a very different lens to the job that they do, and one that is fully cognizant of the damage that the criminal legal system has the potential to do and the need to truly take to heart the essence of the part of the job that is the pursuit of justice, and standing up for the rights of all who are impacted by the system, including those who are charged with crimes.

I think the other thing that's self-evident is this is a group with tremendous diversity. Before, a few years ago, 99% of all elected DAs were white males. Women of color represented a small fraction of the group. And when we first assembled a table of elected leaders in early 2017— sort of the genesis of what became a larger FJP network — we looked around the table, and the majority of the elected leaders who were with us were women, and the majority of them were DAs of color. And that's not something that you could have seen in an assembled group of DAs before then. So they brought diversity of life experience, they brought gender and racial diversity, and they also brought tremendous diversity of experience.

And so I think another common theme is that they were bringing a very different conceptualization of the essence of the job and what success in the job would look like. It was no longer going to be success as defined by how many cases could they prosecute or what would a conviction rate be, but rather success to be defined by the ways in which they were making their communities safer and improving their well-being.

And then I think the final takeaway and common thread among them is ... they are leaders who are facing tremendous pushback, and pushback from those who are used to a certain way of doing business, pushback from those who perhaps have a vested interest in the status quo, pushback from those who don't believe in these kinds of reforms.

And that pushback at times can be very personal, and I think some of the personal attacks come from, in some instances, gender and racial biases that come from individuals who simply aren't willing to accept this new generation, a new type of leader, in a position of power.

When Chesa Boudin [one of the book's subjects] tried to implement his reform-minded approach as San Francisco's DA, he was recalled. And so, what lessons should reform-minded prosecutors learn from what he tried to do and what went wrong?

I think it's important to not presume from that singular result that communities don't want change. And I think one of the key lessons to learn is that the same day that Chesa was recalled, many communities around the country elected or reelected change agents who embrace the very type of starting point in philosophy that Chesa did.

I think it's also important to recognize that recalls are really unique, and they take on a chemistry of their own, and voters aren't faced with choices. They're simply given an opportunity to vent and express frustrations that they have. And that's very much what happens in an election where Chesa actually had more votes than he did in his initial election. But still, we saw a turnout of people who have been subjected to trauma these last few years, who are feeling the stress of economic downturn, who are concerned and perceive themselves to be less safe, whether or not the data and the facts suggest that that's the case.

And so, do you think that other prosecutors throughout the U.S. who want to chase a more reform-minded vision should still feel encouraged about their potential?

Absolutely. I mean, I think they should feel encouraged because communities are sending the message loud and clear in election after election that they want change. They don't want to go back to where we were in the '80s and '90s when I was a prosecutor. They don't believe that the autopilot of punitive responses has worked or that we should try to resurrect it.

Communities are smarter than some give them credit for. And they have seen the wide and expansive reach of the criminal legal system. They have seen people touched by it. They have seen that throwing people away for decades on end simply wastes resources and wastes lives, that there has to be accountability, but that we have to be smart about how we extract that accountability and who needs to be removed from the community and for how long they need to be removed.

How can reform-minded prosecutors, particularly those who are elected, incorporate their vision despite pushback from special interests, police unions and even concerned citizens or elected leaders?

Certainly, law enforcement, judges and other stakeholders need to be partners in the pursuit of safer and healthier communities. But there also needs to be a healthy distance because elected prosecutors have a job to do, and that isn't always going to align — especially when it comes to promoting police accountability — with the interests of some, like police unions or some other stakeholders in the system.

So I think there needs to be somewhat of a thick skin and a strong backbone and a willingness to see what the North Star is and set your agenda along the lines of doing what is right by your community, being transparent about it, holding yourself in your office accountable, but at the first sign of pushback, not running for cover, but continuing to do what's right. And I think this is a moment, both locally and in a national level, where courageous leadership has never been more important.

In my mind, the 13 individuals profiled in this book ... I think these are individuals who very much exemplify courageous leadership. They want to use their time in office to do the right thing. And they recognize that may mean that their time in office could be more limited. But they're very much intent on not doing the job with the end result being to get reelected, but doing the job with the end result being getting it right for their communities and those who they were put in office to try to both protect and preserve the rights of.

Many AGs and DAs in the U.S. are elected rather than appointed. So is this part of the problem or part of the solution, from your perspective?

I think it's very much part of what works and part of enabling a process of change that is very much community-driven to see the light of day. I think we benefit from elected prosecutors who have to be accountable to their community, have to define their vision of justice, force a conversation at every election around what did that vision of justice look like and how have they achieved it or failed in achieving it, and who have to respond to the community's moral compass.

And I think that is what has led to a new generation of leaders with a different vision for justice being able to come into these positions, reflecting not previously empowered individuals, but rather, individuals who come from their community and are reflective of the will of the community.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I do hope that, in addition to what we talked about, bringing to life the stories of these very unusual leaders ... the other thing we were hoping that the book would accomplish is to underscore just how powerful these positions are, the ability of these leaders, with the stroke of a pen, to fundamentally change policies and practices in their local criminal justice system.

With the stroke of a pen, they can eliminate the death penalty. With the stroke of a pen, they can decide whether young people are going to be pushed into the adult system or treated commensurate with their brain development. With the stroke of a pen, they decide whether "three strikes" penalties will be sought. With the stroke of a pen, creating policies, they'll decide whether there will be a post-conviction justice unit in their office to look back at past convictions and past excessive sentences. They'll decide, in setting policy, whether police accountability is going to mean something and where and how their limited resources will be used.

And we knew that at the time we embarked on this project, and felt it was important ... for people to start to be better aware of how important it is to know who their DA is and to exercise their choice down ballot in these races that too often are ignored or overlooked. That was clear when we started it. But in the last year, as we've seen efforts to criminalize things like reproductive choice or decisions around transgender care or other things like that, that are previously settled privacy issues and constitutional rights, who the DA is, is that much more important in society today.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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