“Do we want to ruin someone’s life for stealing a cell phone?
…Or do we want to take our time that we would spend on prosecuting them… making sure that they’re a better, safer member of our community?”*
Why District Attorneys Should Prevent Crime
Turns out the lessons we learned on Law & Order weren’t quite right. District attorneys aren’t actually keeping us safe when they seek maximum sentences.
Here’s a different model for how DA’s can prevent crimes, instead of just punishing those who commit them:
- District attorneys shouldn’t prosecute every case that comes to them.
- Instead, they can use that same time connecting individuals with preventive social services.
- This alternative response to crime saves the futures of offenders.
- It also protects communities by helping those individuals live productive and crime-free lives.
- The $80 billion dollar prison system in our country is expensive and dysfunctional. People leave the system only to re-offend.
- Prevention isn’t only humane, it’s also and cost-effective.
Assistant DA Adam Foss explains that over 90% of criminal cases are resolved before trial in plea deals. These deals require some acknowledgement of guilt. For this reason, individuals gain a criminal record, even for minor infractions like cell phone theft.
And their lives get harder from there. Having a criminal record can:
- Prevent a person from getting an education…because it’s harder to get student loans if you have a record
- Prevent a person from getting a job…because it’s less likely you’ll be hired if you have a record or are on probation
- Prevent a person from finding housing…because your rental application may be denied for the same reasons
- Prevent a person from being a full citizen… because many states have felony disenfranchisement laws
This doesn’t just ruin the life of the individual. It also makes them more dangerous to their community. With tradition means of support and self-sufficiency cut off, they are more likely to commit more serious crimes for financial reasons.
The current system of criminal prosecution doesn’t work for the individuals prosecuted or the communities in which they live.
Adam suggests that district attorneys use their time in a different way. In the TED talk below, Adam suggests prosecutors “spend our time that we would usually take prepping our cases…coming up with real solutions to the problems as they present.”
He gives some examples of how this is already being done in Boston where he works:
- A high school senior who stole and sold 30 laptops to pay for college isn’t charge with 30 felonies, as originally planned. Instead, a plan is instituted so he can make financial restitution. He does community service. He writes an essay on the potential effect of his actions on himself and his community. He goes to college and becomes a bank manager. (Adam met him recently at a networking event.)
- A woman arrested for stealing groceries to feed her kids is assisted in getting a job.
- Instead of putting an abused teenager in adult jail for punching another teenager, the district attorney’s office found them mental health treatment and community supervision.
- A runaway girl who was arrested for prostituting, which she needed to survive on the streets, was paired with needed a safe place to live.
The economics of criminal justice are also on the side of prevention.
Our $80 billion dollar prison system is bloated an broken. Once released, individuals are likely to re-offend because of the roadblocks of a criminal record listed earlier. Housing an individual in prison can also cost up to $100,000 a year. Using that money to provide education, job training, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, housing, and other services would divert individuals from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. They would be able to live full lives. They would give to their communities instead of preying on them.
District attorneys are elected officials. The next time there is an election in your city, Adam suggests you ask them these three questions:
- What are you doing to make me and my neighbors safer?
- What data are you collecting [to evaluate the efficacy of your work], and how are you training your prosecutors to make sure that it’s working?
- If it’s not working for everybody, what are you doing to fix it?
“If they can’t answer the questions,” Adam says, “they shouldn’t be doing the job.” “If our communities are broken,” he continues, “don’t let the lawyers that you elect fix them with outdated, inefficient, expensive methods.”