A challenge from a criminal justice reform organization resulted in 66 elected prosecutors agreeing to visit the very correctional facilities their offices place people in, according to an article in The Davis Vanguard.
The Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group created the challenge in order to promote criminal justice and prison reform. Signatories from 28 states accepted it.
“It’s hard to grasp how incarceration can cause irreparable harm to people if you haven’t seen the inside of an American prison or jail,” said Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution Miriam Krinsky.
Ignorance of the consequences caused by incarceration separates decision makers from the lasting impacts of their decisions, reformers say.
The intent of the organization’s effort is to build empathy and bring more awareness to the need for alternatives to incarceration.
Nicholas Hagerty is a resident of San Quentin who looks beyond the empathetic eye of justice to the alternative sanctions that could serve as a step in the right direction.
“Mindfully you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ’em drink. Bringing prosecutors here is better than not. When they visit, they have a sense of what it is like to be here … I think it’s a good start and that effort needs to be taken on both sides for there to be a true atmosphere of justice and rehabilitation,” said Hagerty.
With the 10 million jail admissions and 600,000 individuals sent to prisons yearly, criminal justice reformers argue that prosecutors know very little about correctional facilities outside their role of placing individuals in them, said the story.
Reducing the jail and prison population is critical and it starts with prosecutors having a more comprehensive understanding of the facilities along with prosecutorial reform, the article said.
San Quentin resident Anthony O. spoke of prosecutors visiting jails and prisons as a way for them to see and experience the community that incarcerated people live in. He noted that this experience might have both positive and negative effects, and how empathetic prosecutors might not lean so heavy on sentencing someone to prison.
“They are exposed to the conditions of the prisons that are cleaned up, rather than bringing them to the areas that show the reality of the incarcerated community,” said Anthony O.
Advocates for reform insist that isolation, dehumanization, and the unsafe conditions of correctional faculties have detrimental effects on both the incarcerated and the communities to which they ultimately return. Getting that information to prosecutors throughout the country is likely to reduce negative impact.
“As a recently elected county attorney, it’s important to me that our staff fully understands the consequences and impact on an individual and the community when they ask for jail or prison sentences. That empathy and understanding is not possible without seeing our local correctional facilities up close and speaking to those who live and work in them,” said Attorney Mary Moriarty, a prosecutor in Henneoin County, Minn.
St. Paul attorney John Choi wrote a reflection paper after his visit to a facility where people he had prosecuted served time following conviction. He noted that for many years prosecutors have said there is no control over what caseload comes their way, nor the consequences that follow sentencing.
“By providing our staff opportunities … giving them a sense of not only the facilities they are sending people to and their programs, but what they really look and feel like, we are really humanizing the experiences of people subject to the legal system,” said Choi.
The pledge issued July 2022 includes prosecutors who have recently taken office and are receptive to reform. Having mandated visits is set to create a culture of reform-minded individuals and lead the expectations of prosecutors when they send a person to a correctional facility. The offices who are participating in this initiative have committed to continuing these visits in the coming years.
“We are proud to stand with the elected prosecutors who have made it a priority for their staff to see the conditions of confinement in their local correctional facilities,” said Krinsky.