The United States is the only country in the world that lets voters decide who will be their prosecutors. For the most part, those elections are foregone conclusions. Prosecutors run for election unopposed 85% of the time. The incumbent wins the election 95% of the time. But what happens when the voters buck this system and start voting prosecutors they don’t like out of office? It is perhaps too new to call a trend, but voters in Chicago and Cleveland recently did just that. In Cook County, Illinois, voters rebelled against State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for, among other things, her failure for over a year to charge the police officer who gunned down Laquan McDonald, as McDonald walked away, and then lied about it in his police report. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, voters defeated Prosecutor Tim McGinty, who refused to prosecute the police officer who shot young Tamir Rice within seconds of his arrival, simply for the offense of playing in a park while black. Thus, it appears that voters are perhaps starting to demand prosecutorial accountability, where the law and the courts have failed to impose any.
Prosecutors are incredibly powerful in our society. They hold the sole discretion to decide who should be prosecuted and for what crimes. And make no mistake about it, those are influential decisions. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned for the same crime as their white counterparts, and that sort of imbalance mostly results from a series of prosecutorial decisions: how to charge the crime, whether to offer a plea deal, how long of a sentence to seek, etc. Prosecutors get to make those types of decisions with virtually no accountability. In fact, even when prosecutors do things like cheat or lie or hide evidence of innocence in order to secure convictions, the law ensures that there are very limited consequences which is, of course, outrageous (as we have discussed in earlier blogs).
But in recent elections, something new happened. Voters tired of police shootings, brutality and misconduct rejected two prosecutors who came to symbolize the systemic problem of white-washing police violence. For Anita Alvarez, the final straw was the Laquan McDonald police shooting and her refusal to charge the murderous police officer until her hands were tied, when a court ordered that the police video showing the police lies and the execution-style murder of McDonald be released to the public. But there was plenty of other fodder for voting her out. For instance, Alvarez fought tooth and nail to keep Daniel Thomas behind bars for a 1992 double murder that everyone knew he could not have committed because he was in police custody for an unrelated incident at the time the crime was committed. She also took more than 20 months to charge an off-duty Chicago police officer who shot a young woman named Rekia Boyd with an unregistered weapon during a noise dispute. Alvarez’s criminal charges against the officer in the Boyd case were not only late, they were also filed incorrectly so that the court had to dismiss the case. Many in Chicago believed Alvarez’s “charging error” was intentional.
For the most part, when prosecutors game the system, play politics, or even cheat, the courts and law protect them. But if voters work to get the bad ones out of office, that could usher in a whole new level of prosecutorial accountability. It also could help to improve the stunning lack of diversity among our nation’s prosecutors – 95% of the country’s elected state and local prosecutors are white, 79% of them white men. And most importantly, if the public demands that prosecutors stop protecting police officers who abuse their office and take citizens’ rights and lives for granted, perhaps some real change can actually be accomplished.