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Going Beyond Big Cities to Reimagine Prosecution

July 30, 2021, 8:01 AM

Even before the murder of George Floyd last year, many prosecutors across the country were working to change a system that relies too much on incarceration and harms marginalized communities.

The nation’s focus when it comes to prosecutorial reform, however, has been on big cities. Rightly so, since they cover millions of people, receive the most media coverage, and generally have an abundance of resources to better address public safety concerns and justice.

To be clear, the efforts of many large city prosecutors are laudable – whether they are improving public safety by declining to prosecute petty crime or restoring faith in our system by vacating wrongful convictions. However, the focus on a handful of metropolitan prosecutors excludes thousands of prosecutors’ offices from our country’s conversation surrounding justice, policing, and incarceration.

Moreover, many of the solutions championed by big city prosecutors simply do not work in smaller jurisdictions that face different challenges and have access to fewer resources. And while the focus is primarily on Democrats, this should not be a partisan effort. One of us, as a Republican district attorney, knows the system can be improved and wants to do what’s best for every person my office serves.

Looking Beyond Big Cities

It is against this backdrop that the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College (IIP) is launching its Beyond Big Cities Program. Starting this summer, with the support of the Microsoft Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, the IIP will bring together a group of elected prosecutors from over a dozen states, across the political spectrum, as well as directly impacted people, those with criminal defense experience, and other stakeholders.

The prosecutors come from communities as small as 5,000 people but share the big picture goal to reimagine their roles and policies to build a fairer criminal justice system. Many are already on the path to change and are the first in their districts to establish drug treatment diversion programs, restorative justice initiatives, and mental health courts.

Every month, the program’s members will exchange ideas about how to implement new policies in smaller prosecutors’ offices. These topics will include restorative justice, racial justice, and diversion.

The program will look at what changes prosecutors in these smaller communities are making to promote public safety and justice, and how other members of the group can do the same. Law enforcement, legal scholars, and leaders in criminal justice reform will offer their unique perspectives to help guide the discussions and compile documents of best practices so that smaller offices have a blueprint for concrete reform-minded initiatives.

Rural Incarceration Rates

This work is more important than ever. While urban jail populations have shrunk over the last 10 years, rural counties now account for the highest rates of incarceration. Residents of rural and small or midsize counties make up 45% of the U.S. population, yet those counties account for 51% of nationwide arrests and 57% of jail admissions.

The changes prosecutors are making in big cities are critical, but it will take the commitment of all prosecutors to create sustainable and effective change in the nation’s criminal justice system.

For smaller communities, the challenges can be even greater as they deal with reduced resources and, in some places, fierce pushback to new initiatives. But to create sustained, national change, every prosecutor needs to reimagine their role and policies, whether they serve 500 or 5 million people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

David O. Leavitt was elected to be the 23rd Utah County Attorney in 2018. Before becoming county attorney, he practiced law in a variety of capacities. His prior work includes playing a significant role in improving legal systems, fighting corruption and fostering integrity in Ukraine and Moldova.

Alissa Marque Heydari is the Deputy Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution. Prior to joining the IIP, she was a prosecutor in New York County.

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