Prosecutors can be the catalyst for justice reform
Rather than acting with swiftness, a string of district attorneys either found no reason to charge the men in the video or they decided to delay action – at least until the video of the horrendous killing went viral. In time, special prosecutor – Joyette Holmes – was appointed and is now pursuing justice.
While arrests have been made and the killing is under investigation, one thing is clear: the Arbery case highlights how singularly powerful prosecutors are, and while a few district attorneys chose not to act in this example, too often the larger problem is that they frequently choose to act with the “tough on crime” mindset that has caused great damage.
Indeed, district attorneys are more than just a bureaucratic cog in the justice system. They play a central role and enjoy a great degree of carte blanche. This can be both good and bad, but for those who want to further criminal justice reforms, district attorneys’ offices present a valuable opportunity.
During Gov. Nathan Deal’s tenure, Georgia was home to a series of cutting edge criminal justice reforms that began to reshape a broken system in which one in 13 Georgians were under some form of criminal justice supervision. Even though Deal greatly improved the criminal code, many problems linger. In fact, as the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute pointed out, “Nearly 600,000 Georgians are living with a felony conviction—one in nine adults in the state—and half of Georgia’s adults have a record of some kind.”
Yet further legislative criminal justice reforms have been hard to come by, which is understandable to an extent. Lawmakers have had their hands full with COVID-19 and flagging revenues. Nevertheless, in the absence of legislative action, prosecutors can be the catalyst to improve the justice system, and they can do so by putting their prosecutorial discretion and influence to great use.
The criminal justice life cycle usually begins with an arrest and then a bond hearing to determine whether suspects can be released and to set their bonds. This is a critical moment in the process because Georgia’s system is primarily based on cash bail – meaning if you can’t afford to post bail, you might languish in jail indefinitely, which is problematic.
The inability to afford bail effectively criminalizes poverty and wreaks havoc on families. After all, it is impossible to financially support one’s dependents from jail, and in the interim, taxpayers fund the defendant’s stay in lockup. What’s more, the longer someone remains in jail – regardless of their guilt or innocence – the more likely they are to commit a crime when they are released.
The truth is that the cash bail system leads to more crime and is a huge taxpayer expense – perhaps around $1,000 per month for each Georgia inmate. However, more prosecutors could recommend reduced bonds or even release the accused on their own recognizance so long as they pose no danger or flight risk. This could lead to a safer and more fiscally responsible Georgia, which everyone ought to support.
Even if the courts began waiving cash bonds in more cases, most of the accused will still be sentenced at some point. Once again, district attorneys can play a vital role here. Rather than seeking to punish suspects with maximum sentences, prosecutors could take a forward-looking approach to reduce future crime by opting for leniency for deserving individuals. This would keep many out of jail and prison, which could prove greatly beneficial. Further, prosecutors could also support directing more defendants to diversion programs where they will receive specialized services to reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. Often, their charges are even dropped once they complete the programs.
There is good reason to want to keep nonviolent Georgians out of prison. After all, the recidivism rate for ex-prisoners is far too high – over 80 percent are rearrested within nine years – and housing them is incredibly expensive – taxpayers spend around $20,000 per inmate annually. Instead of maintaining the status quo, if these individuals don’t pose any real threat, proven rehabilitative options should first be explored.
Prosecutorial recommendations carry great weight in the court system, and they can affect positive change. Unfortunately, many do not regularly use their discretion for these purposes, but more prosecutors should. Indeed, they should aspire to be more than just a cog in the machine and put their influence to better use.