The term “progressive prosecutor” has catapulted into the national consciousness and has dominated discussions about prosecutorial reform that it has become nearly synonymous with the idea of reform itself. The two are not interchangeable, though, and a narrative that treats them as such risks shortchanging the breadth of prosecutorial reform’s appeal, thus limiting its potential.

The label’s popularity owes much to the election of several reform-minded liberals as district attorneys over the last few years. Often campaigning on explicit promises to shake up the status quo, these leaders have provided a much-needed disruption to typically uneventful district attorney races in which incumbents could previously expect reelection irrespective of their record. Once in office, these “progressive prosecutors” have garnered headlines for their policies and rhetoric alike, helping to shape and drive a perception that prosecutorial reform is decidedly liberal in nature.

But strip away the “progressive” branding of the policies and the left-leaning personalities advocating on their behalf, and most of these initiatives are not intrinsically left-wing. Indeed, some even look downright conservative.

One of the reforms instituted by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the poster child of the “progressive prosecutor” movement, provides one particularly emblematic example. In 2018, Krasner ordered his prosecutors to consider the costs of incarceration associated with each sentencing recommendation. With its potential to deter unnecessarily lengthy sentences, the policy was a natural fit within Krasner’s larger push to fight mass incarceration. Yet if you remove that description and Krasner’s name, the proposal, framed as an innovative way to extend consideration of taxpayer dollars to government decision-making, looks like something straight out of a fiscal conservative’s playbook.

Nor does it take much imagination to envision even more dramatic “progressive” reforms as part of a conservative prosecutorial platform.

Take, for instance, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s decision to make alternatives to prosecution the default disposition for a host of low-level misdemeanors. This charging policy has appealed to the activist Left as a step toward a fairer, more restrained criminal justice system. Yet with its redirection of scarce government enforcement resources to the pursuit of more serious offenses, a prosecutor could just as easily promote the policy as an effort to enhance government efficiency and improve public safety, two hallmarks of traditional conservatism.

Although no national movement or label as powerful as that of the “progressive prosecutor” has coalesced on the political Right, the handful of Republicans bucking aspects of the traditional prosecutorial paradigm shows that the potential for other conservatives to do so is not purely theoretical.

In Florida, for example, State Attorney Melissa Nelson ousted an incumbent in part by stressing the need for reforms geared toward smarter, fairer prosecutions, many of which she has since delivered — including Florida’s first conviction integrity unit. Likewise, District Attorney Constance Filley Johnson won election in Texas while associating herself with the conservative criminal justice reform movement. Barry Johnson, another Texas district attorney, explicitly rejected the label “reform” yet nevertheless dismissed hundreds of misdemeanor cases in order to reduce the jail population and save taxpayer money.

Conservatives shouldn’t allow these right-leaning reformers to remain somewhat rare examples. Voters across the ideological spectrum continue to support criminal justice reform by wide margins, and, as the high-profile actions of “progressive prosecutors” show, district attorneys are in a position to deliver real change. Ceding prosecutorial reform to liberals would put conservatives on the wrong side of an electorate hungry for a break in the status quo.

And while that fate may seem politically attractive to Democrats, they should resist the urge to encourage it. Attempting to make the liberal vision of prosecutorial reform its only possible manifestation is a recipe for ensuring that it never reaches millions of Americans.

Vast swathes of the country have no interest in anything remotely associated with the phrase “progressive.” Thus, prosecutorial reform will only reach at least half the country if it has a more conservative cast and bent. Many of the same policies that reduce mass incarceration also make us safer and save taxpayer money. Undermining a conservative district attorney because he or she emphasizes the latter is self-limiting to the movement.

“Progressive prosecutors” deserve much of the attention and praise heaped on them by the media and criminal justice reformers. But we should be careful not to conflate the message with the messengers. Prosecutorial reform is a nonpartisan, cross-ideological issue — or, at least, it can and should be.

Image credit:  Zolnierek