Note: The Just Trust for Action is a fully independent 501(c)4 organization that funds legislative and other advocacy work.
If you ask any locally elected prosecutor in this country what their #1 priority is, every single one will probably say, “public safety.” But there are some fundamental differences between reform-minded prosecutors and prosecutors who believe in the status quo. Reform prosecutors understand that improving public safety — including reducing crime and violence — is intrinsically tied to safely reducing the number of people incarcerated in our jails and prisons. They, like the groups we support at The Just Trust, champion policy change and evidence-based programs that prioritize prevention, access to treatment and social services, rehabilitation, and accountability over criminalization and incarceration.
As a funder, we know there are many ways to help move the field of prosecution forward, and also that there are a growing number of advocacy groups and DAs out there leading the way. When we think about our role at The Just Trust — filling key funding gaps to help sustain reform in the long term — we see an urgent need to support conservative reform-minded prosecutors who are running for office in largely red counties.
On this issue, one of the most important myths we need to bust right now is that reform-minded prosecutors are a monolith. In fact, they can be of any political affiliation and can champion their approach to community safety and well-being in any jurisdiction. We need to recognize this and back reformers everywhere — knowing that conservatives will use different language and focus on slightly different priorities than more liberal prosecutors in liberal strongholds. That’s ok! It’s the way to drive lasting, scalable transformation of this practice.
Unfortunately, the current cultural and political moment we’re in now is really challenging for DAs who want to shift practices (aka solve crime and reduce incarceration rates using smart, proven strategies). There is a renewed saturation of the old “tough on crime” rhetoric, which attempts to stoke and weaponize our real fear of crime and violence for political gain. Our foes use discrete moments (like the recall of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco or high profile crimes) to try to catalyze the return to regressive and highly punitive criminal justice policies — which do not in fact, address safety or the needs of the community.
Prosecutors today have become easy scapegoats for larger cultural phenomena, including the increases in certain types of crime and the quality of life issues we are seeing in our communities. They also rarely get credit for wins, because the other narratives are too dominant and familiar. As reformers, this is our problem to solve by course correcting our strategy, tactics, and messages; better understanding and then responding to the moment; preparing to go on the defensive; and expecting some setbacks. It also means better communicating the impact of reforms on safety itself – the thing people rightly care most about.
Long story short, criminal justice reform can and must happen everywhere, and therefore reform-minded prosecutors can and must have the scaffolding to succeed everywhere (regardless of news cycles). Moving forward, you’ll see us take steps into the center to center-right prosecutor space, and also call on other partners in the funder and advocacy community to join us in building bridges and changing the narrative for the betterment of the field as a whole.
We know, and are on a mission to prove, that criminal justice reform isn’t a liberal or a conservative issue, it’s not an urban or a rural issue. It’s a people issue, it’s a safety issue, and it impacts all of us.