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Americans want prosecutorial reform, study says

26th December 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

Voters across America “overwhelmingly” support prosecutorial reform, according to a public opinion poll released in December by the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice.

The poll, which is the first-ever national survey to ask about the role of prosecutors, also showed that voters are prepared to take their positions with them to the ballot box next November.

The research was conducted by David Binder Research between October 24 and October 30. It included 1,600 telephone interviews in both English and Spanish with Americans likely to vote in November 2018.

Forty-two percent of participants identified as Republican, 41 percent as Democrat and 17 percent as Independent. The results showed a higher than usual response rate for conservative-leaning voters, according to a press released issued by the ACLU.

Respondents were asked what they find important when evaluating candidates for prosecutor and how those beliefs would impact their votes in 2018.

The poll found strong bipartisan and geographically diverse support for prosecutors who are committed to reducing mass incarceration and racial bias in the criminal justice system. They also said they preferred police officers be held accountable for wrongdoing.

According to ACLU researchers, the views represent “a significant departure” from the ideology of a majority of prosecutors currently in office — meaning the results could indicate a “major shake-up” with more than 1,000 prosecutors up for election in November.

“After decades of “tough on crime” messaging, reinforced in practice by prosecutors nationwide from across the political spectrum, it is striking to find such large majorities in support of prosecutorial reform,” researchers wrote. “Voters are clear in supporting a shift in the culture in the office of the prosecutor, and are willing to elect new candidates who share their views.”

The poll’s focus areas — mass incarceration and racial bias — have been specifically raised as subjects of concern in Louisiana.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. A task force report presented to state legislators earlier this year showed 816 people in prison for every 100,000 residents. That amounted to nearly double the national average.

Studies have found that the rate is so high partly because the state sends people to prison for nonviolent crimes — such as drug possession or property crimes — at twice the rate or more of other southern states.

Already, lawmakers have sought to address the issue by enacting laws to shrink sentences for non-violent inmates. Thousands have been released from prison already this year.

In terms of racial bias, a 2015 study of trials in Caddo Parish revealed that potential jurors who were Black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-Blacks.

In Caddo, an area that’s become known as an “outlier” for its high number of death penalty convictions, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46 percent of Black jurors, according to the study conducted by Reprieve Australia. A peremptory strike, in English and American law, is a right in jury selection that allows attorneys to reject a certain number of potential jurors without stating a reason.

The same study found the tactic was used against just 15 percent of other jurors.

Researchers found that juries’ racial makeup appeared to affect the ultimate outcome of the cases. No defendants were acquitted by juries with two or fewer Black jurors, according to the Reprieve study. On the other end of the spectrum, 19 percent were acquitted when five or more jurors were Black.

In 2016, the nation’s highest court ruled on the issue of racial bias in the courtroom, on a case that had come out of Georgia.

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors there had violated the Constitution when they eliminated all Black prospective jurors in a death penalty case. The defendant, Timothy Foster, was also Black.

The ACLU study found that across the nation, 88 percent of voters are more likely to support a prosecutor who believes in reducing racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Another 91 percent believe it is important for a prosecutor to prioritize reducing unequal treatment of individuals because of race, the study found. That included 90 percent of white voters, 90 percent of Latino voters and 95 percent of Black voters.

Another 89 percent of voters say it is very important for prosecutors to actively work towards ending mass incarceration with alternatives to prison.

Lastly, 79 percent said they’d be more likely to support a candidate for prosecutor who believes it is their responsibility to hold officers that break the law accountable. Those voters said they wanted an increase in overall transparency in the criminal justice system.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system. They hold the keys to ending mass incarceration. They just have to use them,” said Taylor Pendergrass, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

“American voters care deeply about the health of their local communities. It should not be surprising that they overwhelmingly prefer prosecutors who will end mass incarceration, reduce racial bias in our criminal justice system, and operate transparently,” Pender-grass added. “The bigger surprise is that “tough on crime,” pro-incarceration prosecutors have survived unchallenged for so long.”

This article originally published in the December 25, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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