In November, people will vote for all 435 members of the House of Representative, 35 senate seats, and 39 state and territorial governorships. Most media attention will be focused on these races. Hardly any attention will be paid to one of the most important elected offices and that is the prosecutors. There are a total of 2,437 elected prosecutors in the US, going under various titles from county district attorneys to state attorney generals. In all but three states, prosecutors are elected. In many ways, prosecutors are the most important people in the legal system since they have the power to decide whether to pursue a case, whom to charge and with what crime, make plea deals, strongly influence who gets bail and how much, and they and have great power over the flow of information pertaining to the case. And yet, 85% are elected unopposed and I suspect that few can name the person who occupies that position in their area.
A recent study by the Women Donors Network found that as a result of this lack of attention, these offices do not reflect the population at large. 95% of prosecutors are white, 79% are white men (despite making up just 31% of the population), and just 17% are women. 4% are men of color and only 1% are women of color (Kimberly Foxx in Chicago is one of the few). In 14 states, every elected prosecutor is white. You can see a nice graphic of the results here. The WDN press release has more. Where I live,the title of the prosecutor is Cuyahoga County Prosecutor and he too is currently a white male. But at least from 1991 to 1999 we had a black woman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. The county demographics can be seen here.
In the wake of the many recent cases of police officers not being charged with the killing of people of color, people have woken up the importance of the elected prosecutors’ office in implementing real reforms of the legal system and they are focusing more attention on these races. I wrote recently of civil rights attorney Larry Krasner who won the office of district attorney in Philadelphia and immediately set about implementing significant reforms.
The Philadelphia race was a pilot project by the ACLU to see if nonpartisan voter education could get people to pay more attention to this important but ignored office and it worked. They are now replicating that effort in nearly 30 states, sending out volunteers to knock on doors and talk to people. They are organizing forums to ask candidates how they plan to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the prison system, so that prosecutors can no longer simply slide into office without taking a stand.
Tomorrow in St. Louis county, Missouri, where the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson four years ago sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, voters have the chance to elect Wesley Bell, a reform-minded prosecutor who happens to be black, to replace the current incumbent who has been in the office since 1991 and was the one who did not charge anyone with the Brown killing.
UPDATE: John Oliver had an excellent segment last night on the role of prosecutors.