The idea of the “progressive prosecutor” has gained popularity with the 2017 election of civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as Philadelphia district attorney, the 2018 election of Rachael Rollins as Suffolk County (Boston) district attorney, and the upcoming 2019 district attorney race in Queens, New York, in which all seven candidates are touting criminal justice reform rather than “law and order.” This trend, a result of decades of organizing that has increased the popularity of criminal justice reform, has former prosecutors rewriting their own histories to rebrand themselves as progressives and obscure the reality that, in the not-too-distant past, they upheld draconian policies and did their utmost to not only put people in prison, but keep them there.
First, remember that the job of prosecutors is to prosecute—meaning that they charge people in criminal court and do their utmost to send them to prison. Attorneys who want to defend people’s civil and personal liberties typically take jobs as defense or civil rights attorneys. But even prosecutors can act in a way that doesn’t send people to prison—they have the discretion in choosing which charges to bring against a person—or whether to bring any charges at all.
Given prosecutors’ tremendous institutional powers, we need to dig beneath their rhetoric to examine the actions of these supposedly progressive candidates.
Before she became a Democratic senator for California—and, now, presidential hopeful—Kamala Harris served as California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney. Both jobs revolve around prosecuting and locking people up, but Harris went the extra mile. As district attorney, she threatened to prosecute parents whose children skipped school and, as state attorney general, drafted a 2010 law allowing police to file charges