Updated: May 25, 2020
On my Thursday morning run, I passed a group of police officers. As I ran by, they looked my way. I was struck with fear - did I look enough like a runner, or too much like a suspect? I sprinted away. Respect the phobias we endure at the hands of our broken criminal justice system.
There can never be real justice for Ahmaud. Jogging while Black shouldn't have been his death sentence.
While there can't be true justice, there can be accountability and reform. Ahmaud's murder is an all too familiar American tragedy, demanding greater reactions than a tweet or a run. Our protests and shows of solidarity thrust Ahmaud's murder into the national spotlight - good and necessary steps. But, now we owe it to him to keep going. We owe it to Ahmaud to harness this attention into substantive change.
His death demands prosecutorial reform.
District attorneys (DAs) and prosecutors are a major part of the criminal justice system. Yet, they are the only actors in the system that aren't mandated to report data. Although DAs and prosecutors make critical decisions - deciding who gets charged, who has their charges dismissed, and who gets what plea. Just last year, Connecticut became the first state to require prosecutorial data-collection.
In addition to not being required to report data, prosecutors are granted broad discretion. This is so they can evaluate the unique circumstances of each case. Perhaps going for a lesser charge for troubled youth or a greater sentence for a known abuser. The issue is, we don't know which youth or abuser gets what outcome. We don't mandate data-collection, so there are no checks and balances on prosecutorial discretion. Allowing prosecutors to operate with limited transparency and accountability.
It took two months of a devastated family's pleas, a leaked video, and national outrage for prosecutors to charge two white men with a Black man's murder. DAs are mostly elected, we can put prosecutorial reform on the ballot. That is greater accountability for Ahmaud.
In 2020, in a world with artificial intelligence, most DA offices are still using paper files and making rushed plea deals in hallways with no record of their decision-making process. Prosecutors are overworked and underfunded, often rendering them unable to screen cases before filing charges and making initial plea offers. Very few jurisdictions mandate case screening, this means cop becomes a prosecutor. Law school and legal training be damned. Prosecutors aren't trained to make arrests, and the police certainly aren't trained to adjudicate cases.
Without screening, the accused (many of whom are innocent) are charged and left to linger in the system until a prosecutor has time to screen their case. This is why many people take pleas - not because of guilt that can be proven, but because they can't afford to linger. 60% of people in jails haven't been convicted of a crime and 60% of those people look like me.
In 2014, Mecklenburg County reviewed its prosecutorial decisions. Black women accused of drug offenses had less than a 5% declination rate. Meaning if a police officer said to charge a Black woman prosecutors complied. No screening and no questions, just charges.
It's said if every defendant rejected pleas and went to trial then the system would collapse. America processes more crimes than it's systems can handle. Forcing prosecutors to make quick decisions under tight deadlines, often based not on the facts but their instincts. Instincts shaped by their personal experiences and biases. Prosecutors can't screen all cases, they can't decline all charges, and everyone can't get the same plea bargain - so who gets what and how is that decided? How and why did the DA decide to not file charges in Ahmaud's case originally?
Anyone can see the danger in this.
I'm not saying prosecutors are evil. I think most want to uphold the letter of the law. But, prosecutors are human, and like all humans they make mistakes. Not to mention, we often unaware of our own biases - which is why data-collection is so important. Additionally, all across the country, prosecutors are juggling hundreds of cases daily. In district courts alone, more than 11 million Americans are processed yearly. The American Bar Association recommends prosecutors handle no more than 400 cases per year - that's the daily caseload in many jurisdictions. Turnstile jumping, marijuana possession, jaywalking - the threat to society posed by these "crimes" pale in comparison to the trampling of constitutional rights at the hands of an overburdened system.
We can elect DAs that commit to decriminalizing certain crimes because they understand that our system cannot handle the volume of cases we process and who know the importance of mandating office-wide data-collection. We can no longer afford blanket immunity and a clogged system.
Last year, I spent a few days observing DC's courts. I watched prosecutors and defenders appear in court without knowing the name of the defendant, or even all the charges. You can see them reading the case file as they go. And there are only Black and Brown defendants - an outstanding phenomenon considering DC is no longer "Chocolate City". It begs the question, does being white give you a greater chance of having your case screened? Does being white give you a greater chance of having your charges declined? Does being white give you a greater chance for a better plea agreement? Spend a day in a courthouse and you'll have the answers to these questions.
For Ahmaud and the millions of Americans processed in American courts each year, we must demand prosecutorial reform. We cannot continue to process more crimes than we can handle and we need greater transparency and accountability. No one should have unbridled discretion.
Every elected official who tweeted outrage for Ahmaud, if you truly care, then now is the time to legislate. On the federal level, authorize more funds for court technology - paper files don't cut it and we need to hire more, and diverse prosecutors and court actors. State officials must require case screening and provide greater funds for public defense. Additionally, not every crime warrants a jail cell. Providing support and rehabilitation services for the accused costs less than jail cells. We must invest more in community policing and training and every elected DAs should be held accountable for providing data and processing less crime. If we can't push for commonsense prosecutorial reforms, then save your tweets.
DAs and prosecutors are public servants, without transparency and accountability, there can be no trust.
DA's decisions matter, and we deserve to know what decisions they are making.