Just because you’ve got a big hammer in your toolbox doesn’t mean you should threaten to use it.”
So says an ex-federal prosecutor commenting on the proper role of a government attorney in the charging process. That should uniformly be the filing of only charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The commentator and other reform-minded voices now speaking up in the criminal realm stress that charging high for political reasons or to secure leverage in a plea bargain broadly disservices the public and undermines justice.
For starters, it sends legions of people to prison for very long periods, sometimes decades. The cost to society is prohibitively high, and the punishment-only focus in lieu of rehabilitation often comes back to haunt both individual defendants and the communities to which they return.
“The era of trying to get away with the highest charge regardless of the facts is over,”
That quote comes from Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, a justice official spotlighted in a recent national article on criminal reforms that references “head-turning changes” he has authored in his city. Those include a curtailment on government attorneys seeking bail in minor cases and a pursuit of outcomes in select matters that are beneath the lower end of recommended guidelines. Krasner focuses especially closely on some violent crime cases that can be charged downward to escape harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
The above-cited Slate article notes that, while Krasner is a notably high-profile figure in the reform movement, he is far from being a rare voice arguing for change. A reform inclination is evident all across the country and on display in major cities everywhere, including St. Louis.
“It’s about being pragmatic,” says a principal with the advocacy group Common Justice.