On June 25, Democratic voters in New York City effectively elected their next state’s attorney for Queens. In a primary night surprise, thirty-one-year-old Latina public defender Tiffany Cabán claimed victory over Queens borough president Melinda Katz.
If Cabán ultimately prevails—a recount is certain given the razor-thin margin, and shenanigans seem certain given the city—she’ll be the latest defense attorney elected chief prosecutor after campaigning on aggressive criminal justice reforms, joining Rachael Rollins in Boston, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and several others around the country.
That zeal for reforming our absurd “justice” system has even reached North Carolina. Last year, voters in both Mecklenburg and Wake Counties replaced incumbent sheriffs with challengers who pledged to end participation in the federal government’s ludicrous 287(g) program, in which local tax money is squandered to “deputize” sheriff’s offices into ICE agents to do Washington’s work for it.
Durham’s incumbent sheriff was ousted, too, and exchanged for a career lawman who promised to end the unconstitutional practice of enforcing ICE detainers—the policy of ignoring the Fifth Amendment to instead spend your money holding people in jail for two days after a judge has ordered their release.
And like Cabán in New York, Durham County voters chose a new district attorney in Satana Deberry, who vowed to bring about reforms faster than the incumbent she replaced.
In North Carolina, some recent reforms have even featured bipartisanship! In just the past few years, bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly have redirected resources into community corrections, raised the age for when children can be prosecuted as adults, expanded our expungement laws, and then expanded them again. All of these reforms are significant, and each will have meaningful, long-term effects on thousands of North Carolinians.
But as hard as they were to get through our legislature—the Raise the Age bill alone took over a decade, even with study after study after study recommending the changes—these reforms are also comparatively easy in the grand pantheon of fixes our system needs. Consider Raise the Age: Efforts to make that change languished for so long that, by the time it finally passed the General Assembly in June 2017, North Carolina had become the last state in the entire country still prosecuting all sixteen-year-olds as adults. (New York was second to last, enacting its Raise the Age legislation two months before us.)
Much harder conversations lie ahead, and legislative prospects are dubious.
Take money bail. The practice of caging someone before trial unless they have money is as old as the country itself; Alexis de Tocqueville decried its inherent unfairness in Democracy in America, written in 1835. But even though the federal government mostly abandoned money bail when Congress adopted the Bail Reform Act in 1984, our state continues to gauge whether someone should remain in jail before trial largely on whether he or she has money in the bank. This produces artificially increased guilty pleas on top of disrupting families and jobs.
And at some point, we need to reassess how we handle prison sentences.
Mention “violent offenders” and most politicians flee for the hills. But, in a four–part series on Medium, a data scientist writing under the pseudonym @xenocrypt showed how longer sentences for violent crimes coupled with short-but-numerous sentences for drug crimes created an explosion in prison populations that simply cannot go away without significant decarceration.
The end result is hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars invested in warehousing people, long after most have “aged out” of criminal conduct—depriving policymakers of revenue to spend on more productive endeavors.
These are just two examples, with many more alongside them. The work of meaningful criminal justice reform has only started, and bigger battles are yet to come.
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