Progressive District Attorneys Can Affect the Foster Care System by Changing the Tough on Crime Culture

I. Introduction: Since the tough on crime culture played a large role in mass incarceration, we must elect Progressive District Attorneys that prioritize diversion and rehabilitation before incarceration whenever it is possible.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, District Attorneys’ offices have a wide degree of discretion throughout the stages of the criminal justice process. The decisions prosecutors make can impact whether a parent gets incarcerated, and ultimately whether a parent loses their parental rights in that process. The Vera Institute compiled an overview of seven critical decision points for prosecutors throughout the criminal justice process and how these decisions can affect an individual’s fate. Notably, the overview highlights how, even at the charging stage, if the prosecutor selects a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, he has essentially already chosen the potential sentence at the time of charging, rather than the judge or jury doing so at the time of sentencing. If the prosecutor had chosen a lesser charge, this decision could increase the likelihood that a person is, for example, eligible for diversion programs or released pre-trial. Diversion programs, or pre-trial release, could likely help contribute to maintaining an otherwise healthy family unit and keep additional children from being placed in the foster care system.

By prioritizing programs that avoid incarceration and promoting, for example, rehabilitation, prosecutors can dramatically decrease the number of children who end up in foster care. District Attorneys’ offices, and the individual decisions prosecutors make, are highly influenced by their culture. A Chief District Attorney can change the entire culture of an office by, for example, promoting decisions and programs which would actually assist parents in overcoming their involvement in the justice system and allowing them to continue to be involved in their child’s life. Electing a more progressive District Attorney, who prioritizes programs that avoid incarceration, would benefit parents as a whole. Historically, District Attorneys’ offices have followed a tough on crime approach which rewarded a high rate of convictions, at all costs. This culture, in effect, has resulted in the high rates of incarceration we see in our nation today.

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Changing the System From Within: How Electing a New District Attorney Can Improve the Foster Care System

I. Introduction: Since most District Attorneys are elected, we must elect District Attorneys who embrace criminal justice reform.

Criminal justice reformers have a new strategy: electing new District Attorneys in order to change the system from within. District Attorneys (“DA’s”) are commonly referred to as prosecutors, and prosecutors represent “the People” of the state in which they work. This means that in everything prosecutors do, with the power they wield, they must keep in mind what is best for the victims, defendants, and people of their state. While the decisions of an individual deputy district attorney, in deciding what is best for “the People,” can influence the foster care system on a micro-level, the election of a Chief District Attorney can influence the foster care system on a macro-level. This is why criminal justice reform advocates have recently begun to utilize a new strategy to advance their cause: voting out the old DA in favor of a new DA who embraces commonsense criminal justice reform.

When a child is placed in the foster care system, that child’s life and the life of that child’s parents are changed forever. The same thing goes for when a child, or a child’s parents, gets incarcerated. These traumatic events have immeasurable lifelong consequences. At every waystation in the criminal justice system, the lives of all those who are touched by the system become irreparably impacted. Given that prosecutors have outsized influence and power in the criminal justice process, it is evident that examining the role of prosecutors is critical to understanding how the foster care system can be improved. While admittedly a crass and inexact analogy, if one were interested in reforming the beef industry, an examination of the roles of cattle farmers would be important to analyze. Concomitantly, an analysis of those who wield power in the criminal justice system, and who serve as de facto feeders into that system, is important to understanding how reform of the system can be most effectively undertaken.

Children with incarcerated parents and children in foster care often overlap. In fact, 40% of children in foster care have been exposed to parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Children with parents who become entangled in the criminal justice system are far more likely to enter the foster care system. In fact, each year, 14,000 children whose parents are incarcerated are placed in the foster care system. The criminal justice system exacts an often-heavy toll on the accused, however, that toll does not just fall on the accused him- or herself. The children of the accused suffer collateral consequences as a result of a parent’s experience with the criminal justice system. Since, in the criminal justice system, prosecutors have arguably the most power and influence, analyzing prosecutors’ roles in the system is thus imperative to understanding how to improve the foster care system. One solution is electing more District Attorneys who embrace systemic reform.

Over the course of my posts, I will discuss the influence the Chief District Attorney has on his or her deputy district attorneys and how that is relevant to the foster care and juvenile justice systems as a whole.

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