BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE So we have a new strategy now, this new wave of prosecutors. Where did it come from?
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EMILY BAZELON One important force is the Black Lives Matter movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emily Bazelon is the author of Charged.
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EMILY BAZELON It's really about police accountability in the beginning. But then some of the main thinkers and organizers think. 'OK, what can I do with my constituency that's really going to change this community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As we established earlier, DAs are powerful. They set the enforcement agenda, the charges, the bail, the overall direction of criminal justice in their zones. And they're pretty much accountable to no one except the electorate.
EMILY BAZELON These local organizers figured out you can get people to think about the DA as an expression of the community's values–kind of like the mayor. And if you show up you can really control who's in office. And that realization has changed the face of the DA's office in a lot of big cities around the country in a very short amount of time. Another influence in these DA elections are donors like George Soros and the Open Philanthropy Project that have gone in behind these reformer DA candidates. Sometimes the people who work for George Soros get involved in vetting the candidates, figuring out who could win.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh, so like the Koch brothers?
EMILY BAZELON Yeah. Well the Koch brothers are another interesting player in this space. They have not been funding progressive candidates for district attorney but they have funded other kinds of criminal justice reform efforts, both at universities and some diversion programs in states like Florida and Texas. And I think what you see here is a kind of libertarian, conservative recognition that the system has become too big, too expensive and just too powerful. So this is one area in which you really do see the Kochs and the ACLU sharing some common ground.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Seems the prison industrial complex doesn't have as many fans as you may think.
LARRY KRASNER You know the program through reverse mass incarceration is not that complicated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.
LARRY KRASNER For those of us who've been in the system, you stop taking so many cases. You stop convicting so many people. You stop always seeking longer and longer sentences. You stop seeking sentences of life without parole when it's inappropriate. And you also stop mass supervision because mass supervision meaning mass probation and parole is a funnel that gets more and more people into jail when they violate. And sometimes those violations are real and substantial and they should be back in jail but often it's a situation which it's a technical violation. You know, they haven't been perfect that reporting to probation. They have been able to pay fines and costs. Their jobs are interfering with some of the duties. Or heaven forbid, they smoke some weed once.
RACHEL ROLLINS It is just amazing to think that a year ago I was a candidate talking about Larry Krasner and how great he was and Kim Fox and all the great things she was doing and that's of course Philadelphia and Cook County Chicago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rachel Rollins is the Suffolk County Massachusetts DA, Boston's DA. And another one of the new class of progressive prosecutors roiling the juridical waters.
RACHEL ROLLINS And a week and a half ago I was sitting in Larry's living room with his wife drinking wine before we were on a panel in Philadelphia. And I was texting Kim Fox Sunday night because we were supposed to be on a panel together on Monday. So we all are, you know, I don't even like the word ally anymore Brooke because I feel like allies are people that whisper like, 'keep it up' and or send you a text but in public don't do anything like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Band of Sisters and a brother.
RACHEL ROLLINS Yeah or like I--even more seriously, like my unindicted co-conspirators.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From the outset of her campaign, she made her program clear: deploy resources differently. Don't even bother prosecuting the lowest level crimes without getting the nod from above. Specifically 15 crimes including trespassing, disorderly conduct, drug possession, one time resisting arrest.
RACHEL ROLLINS Who is the person that's coming before us? If they have mental health issues, substance use disorder, homelessness or abject poverty then those are the root causes overwhelmingly of maybe why they are coming into contact with the system. Which right now basically says, 'let's arrest everyone, send them all to Suffolk County House of Corrections or Nashua Street and it'll cost the Commonwealth $55,000 a year for them to get substance use treatment, if they even get it, or mental health treatment, if they even get it, or work on their homelessness, which of course they are not while they're incarcerated. And so I just thought let's think about this differently and come up with a proposal. I put it in writing on my website about six months before the primary and then we won. And then we won again. And then I actually memorialized it in a memo and everyone lost their minds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Haha. So why did everyone lose their mind?
RACHEL ROLLINS I'm not beholden to anyone and I happen to have an incredibly powerful role that reports to nobody. So I think they woke up on September 5th saw that their candidate came in second over 20 points behind me and they said, 'who in the hell is this Rachel Rollins.' In Massachusetts, unlike any other place in the United States of America, no arrest in a homicide can happen without the DA saying you may arrest that person. Any detective that wants to be in the homicide unit, I have to approve that. You cannot be in my narcotics or my homicide unit on the state police side without me, the DA, approving that individual being in either unit. So I have over 400 people I'm responsible for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And she hasn't fired a single one. Unlike Philadelphia DA Krasner who dismissed 31 lawyers, about a tenth of the legal team he inherited.
LARRY KRASNER Nearly all of those 31 or so people were attorneys, these are people who are going to undermine the mission or they had such serious problems, let me put it that way, in their records as prosecutors that we were unwilling to have them on the team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Each prosecutor is trying to change the culture, and fast. It's the speed and the rhetoric so laden with what he deems wishful thinking that concerns Richmond County DA Michael McMahon, Staten Island's DA, who isn't seen as part of the new progressive wave.
MICHAEL MCMAHON The idea is to move forward and deal with issues thoughtfully and apply smart justice. What I disagree with sometimes is the rhetoric of people who think that you can just will away the fact that there are some crimes that are committed that society's problems end up in the lap, really, of the police department and the prosecutor. And we have to deal with them thoughtfully and meaningfully, not in a way that just sort of magically makes everything disappear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last spring the Manhattan and Brooklyn DAs came out with a new approach to marijuana prosecution.
CY VANCE We are going to treat it as an offense that should not be brought into the criminal justice system. And therefore, we are asking the police to issue summonses, civil summonses or summonses not going to the Manhattan Criminal Court for those cases. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE McMahon, however, took a different approach saying, 'I took an oath to uphold the laws of the state of New York and ultimately this is an issue that should be decided in a more thoughtful and comprehensive way by the state legislature and not as a rushed reaction to the top news headlines of the day.'
MICHAEL MCMAHON I do not believe that district attorneys are the legislature, right? So the legislature is considering reforming marijuana laws, that's fine, that's their job and I will enforce the law as they get it. And what you'll also see in the majority of those cases, those who are accused of the crime are received ACD meaning that the cases were adjourned contemplating dismissal and ultimately their records were sealed. But when arrests are made by the police department and they're enforcing the laws that are on the books and they are keeping public order then I support that. I do not believe that each individual county DA should become the legislature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile arrests for simple marijuana possession are down, over 90 percent in Manhattan and Brooklyn. McMahon says arrests are down in his county too and alternatives to incarceration are up.
MICHAEL MCMAHON I am doing reform every day in this office and fighting to do it even better. And I totally modernize this office and its approach. But I don't issue political polemics about how I'm going to do it to sort of satisfy one group of society. We have to be honest. We have to speak truth to our issues and society will be better off when we do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE McMahon also has been critical of the New York state criminal justice reforms passed with April's state budget. He says the legislature is tripping over itself by trying to do too much too fast.
MICHAEL MCMAHON They eliminated bail for specific charges such as A-1 possession of felony weight controlled substances. So about three weeks ago, the police on Staten Island arrested a gentleman who had six kilos of methamphetamines and thousands and thousands of dollars of cash. And obviously was someone who was trafficking these narcotics across the country. So in my mind, in that case, cash bail should be an option because that person obviously has the means and the resources to flee and not come back. And under the new legislation we could not ask for bail in that case. So I do believe in bail reform for most misdemeanors but some felonies that were included I think that was inappropriate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It doesn't do away with holding people. It does away with cash bail. If you think a person is going to flee because he had the means to do so, then he shouldn't be allowed access to cash bail. He should just be held.
MICHAEL MCMAHON I would like to hold as few people as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If someone is a flight risk, they should just be held. If they aren't a flight risk, then they shouldn't be held.
MICHAEL MCMAHON In the example that I gave you the question was whether or not someone who has that level of charges and obviously has financial wherewithal is going to be able to flee and not be returned. Or someone who is being released without some sort of holding mechanism could be back in the community without any protection to the victims of the crime is something that concerns me. So I think in a--in a rash dash to sort of what the appetite of those who are clamoring for criminal justice reform, they've gone too far. And I think society is going to suffer. I think public safety is going to suffer. I think victims are going to suffer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And generally progressive prosecutors are not incrementalist–they do dash.
LARRY KRASNER There is a narrative that people want and the narrative goes like this--
BROOKE GLADSTONE Larry Krasner.
LARRY KRASNER --whenever you have a progressive DA, and that progressive DA hasn't quite cured crime, yet we are going to claim that because your policies are not draconian, something is all your fault. The fact is, that since we came into office in the last 18 months, crime is flat and violent crime overall is down two to three percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Philly magazine had an opinion headline from last month. The disastrous consequences of DA Larry Krasner's reforms, gun related violent crime is up in Philadelphia. That was entirely predictable when we elected a district attorney whose primary goal is releasing criminals rather than prosecuting them.
LARRY KRASNER Usually Philly magazine is not the greatest offender actually. Usually Philly magazines pretty friendly but you are certainly going to find individuals and certain publications that are very much coming from the old perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So gun related violent crime isn't up in Philly or it's not related to your policies.
LARRY KRASNER Gun related violent crime is up in Philly. It has been on a trend up for some time but it is up. Again, within the overall category of violent crime, that includes gun related violent crime. Violent crime is down two to three percent. I'm looking at the results for today. The number of homicides at this time of year the year before we were in office was 177 and the number now is 178. And then by comparison, if you look at the very end of the administration of our most draconian prosecutor Lynne Abraham, at this time of year, she was at 219. These issues are fundamentally structural issues and the narrative doesn't want to talk about that. The narrative simply wants to take whatever isolated statistic will support the proposal that sensible moderate approaches don't work and push that narrative. And I'm really hoping that--that across the country people will start to look at a different metric. And that metric is what is the number of future years of incarceration that this administration is generating as compared to the past. Because the real question is not how many people are in jail today. Some of them may be in for a 10 day sentence. Some may be serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The real question is when you aggregate the future sentencing, is it coming down? If it's coming down in meaningful significant ways then we will get to an end of mass incarceration regardless of what today's headcount is in the jails.
RACHEL ROLLINS I'm looking, for example, at part one crime reported by The Boston Police Department.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On July 6th, The Boston Globe published an article about DA Rachel Rollins with the headline Stopping Injustice or Putting the Public at Risk, Suffolk DA Rachel Rollins Tactics Spur Pushback.
RACHEL ROLLINS If you look at January 1 to July 14 of 2018 compared to this year, violent crime is down nine percent, according to the Boston police. But if you read anything about me at all and the titles that the media, in Boston in particular, have been using like, 'is she stopping injustice or putting the public at risk?' Our media is not particularly diverse. They are writing through a lens of, oftentimes, privilege and whiteness that they believe they fully understand these communities of color that they of course don't actually live in. My lens is very different. I have nieces that are in DCF custody, the Department of Children and Families as a result of some of the decisions my siblings have made or circumstances they've found themselves in. So I come to the table with not only Harvard Business School and the U.S. attorney's office and a DA rotation and a very large firm but also the sibling of incarcerated people and the guardian of two nieces due to the opioid crisis, mental health issues and our carceral system. So there's a lot of people that say, 'why is she talking so much about defendants?' It proves to me when they make a statement like that how little they know about the work we actually do. Anyone who's in the homicide unit, in the Youth Violence Task Force or some people call it a gang unit, they understand that these are complicated people that are one day a victim, next day a defendant possibly even a witness. And we have to treat them with dignity and respect irrespective of what they are alleged to have done because the system works for them as well.
EMILY BAZELON We tend to assume that when the crime rate rises or falls it's because of something the police or the court system is doing or not doing. In fact, there's so many other factors that come into play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emily Bazelon.
EMILY BAZELON There is a sociologist at NYU named Pat Sharkey and he did this huge study and he found that if you add a nonprofit to a community you can see a 1 percent drop in the homicide rate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Any nonprofit?
EMILY BAZELON Any good nonprofit. And when I was talking about this with Robert Sampson who's another sociologist he said, 'look, imagine a vacant lot where a group of people get together and they form an organization to turn it into a playground.' You don't think of that as being about preventing shootings. But when you have a playground you have kids outside and then you have their parents and other people watching them. You have more foot traffic. You have the sense that this is a vibrant neighborhood where people take care of each other. You can make the community feel like a healthier place and then it's less likely that it will be crime ridden. Middle class and affluent people know this intuitively. This is what we want from our own neighborhoods and yet we've somehow gotten the idea that poor people are better served by getting arrested all the time.
LARRY KRASNER These are long term problems that require long term solutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Larry Krasner.
LARRY KRASNER And the notion that any particular Police Commissioner Mayor or DA is going to talk tough and beat their chests for a minute and all of a sudden crime is going to stop. It's just--it's just a fiction. It's a bunch of nonsense. The reality is that the way that we make people safer is by having more money in education or less money in prisons and more money in treatment and more money in economic development and more money and job training. It's by making sure that 16 year old young men predominantly do not feel that their lives have no value and pick up guns. That's how you do it. And no, I don't have a time machine. I can't actually go back and try to fix all the dumb that was done by this--this, you know, predominant prevalent philosophy of locking up everybody for as long as possible. It will take a minute but we have a minute because we have so many people who are supportive of this notion here and around the country. We had so many people in Philly that, strangely enough, as a complete political unknown, we ended up with more votes than any DA and at least the last 20 years in an election. Right? It's coming from somewhere and it's coming from somewhere in Chicago and San Francisco a few years ago. There's 15 to 20 very important, large jurisdictions that are drivers of mass incarceration where we have progressive DAs being elected who never would've been elected 15 years ago because people have changed in how they see these things. And that was inevitable.
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LARRY KRASNER When the other side got so good at locking everybody up, the part they were missing was that they were going to be really good at convincing not only that people got locked up but their mothers and cousins and friends and bosses that this system is bad and they did that. They've convinced voters all over the country that this system is bad and that has to change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We just heard Krasner say that the myth of the savior crime fighter, powerful though he or she may be, is just that–A fairy tale. Saviors need communities to elect them. Communities to help catch murderers. Communities to ensure that murderers are rare. Communities with families needlessly broken up by minimum sentencing, unreachable bail or parole rules designed to be breached, will tend to be as leery of the criminal justice system as the system is at them. When you read the paper, check out the underlying narratives. The predictions of doom if that system changes. Fear and the alienation its spains does not make America safer. It makes it more dangerous. It always has.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE This was actually the first part of a three part series we're doing on repairing justice. Tune in to our podcast extra next week for a conversation with Danielle Sered about restorative justice. You won't want to miss.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show. On The Media was produced almost entirely this week by Leah Feder. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. And I promise Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.