Professor Ron Wright co-authors Seattle Times op/ed about changing role of prosecutors in addressing criminal justice reform

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Ron Wright

Professor Ron Wright is one of the nation’s best known criminal justice scholars. He is the co-author of two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing; his empirical research concentrates on the work of criminal prosecutors.

The following op/ed titled, “Prosecutors must learn to listen to critics and communities,” co-written by Professor Ron Wright and Dan Satterberg, King County, Washington, prosecutor, was originally published in The Seattle Times on Oct. 26, 2016.

THE Pew Research Center recently published a poll that revealed a deep racial divide in America when it comes to public confidence in police and the criminal-justice system. Three out of four white poll respondents said that the police were doing a good or excellent job and treated all ethnic groups equally. Only one in three African Americans held that same view.

There are ample reasons to think that communities of color mistrust not only the police, but also the court systems. Nearly 80 percent of black poll respondents said that outrage over highly publicized fatal encounters with police were actually signs of a much broader problem with how communities of color are treated in the criminal-justice system. The poll offers our most recent glimpse of a racial divide and legitimate mistrust with deep historical roots, as explored in the new Netflix documentary “13th.”

In this environment of mistrust, the biggest challenge for prosecutors today as leaders of the criminal-justice system is to listen to our critics. We believe those critics are asking us to build a system that does justice with the communities most affected by crime, replacing a system that has done injustice to the community.

Elected prosecutors gathered at the White House this week to discuss the changing role of prosecutors in addressing criminal-justice reform. Together with academic researchers, prosecutors will examine ways to increase community safety and reduce prison populations by building greater collaboration with those communities most impacted by crime and criminal-justice system involvement.

The idea of “community justice” means engaging community leaders and nonprofit providers in a joint effort to define accountability and then to devise effective alternatives to the criminal courts for the complex social problems that have historically been dumped onto the courthouse steps.

For the past 30 years, the criminal-justice system has become the primary place to tackle drug addiction, mental illness and school discipline. Overreliance on the criminal-justice system created what sociologists call “the era of mass incarceration.” The ripple effects of our high rate of incarceration, in combination with the insidious racial disproportionality in our system, have eroded public trust among the very people that we need most to participate in reforming the system.

When it comes to serious violent crimes, prosecutors will continue to pursue prison sentences in the interest of public safety. But what about the rest of the caseload? To usher in a new era of community justice, prosecutors must expand their vision beyond the courtroom and share their power with partners in the community to address social problems upstream before they ever flow into the courtroom.

Here are some examples of community justice in action in Seattle:

Drug addiction is a serious problem in Seattle, as in most urban centers, and our history of policing reflected an unequal impact on communities of color. In 2011, community leaders developed an alternative to arrest for minor drug crimes, prostitution and property crimes linked to addiction. This new approach, called LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), gives police the option of handing over an arrested person to a case manager instead of a jailer.

The community found the resources to allow LEAD to stabilize and expand community housing and recovery services. Next up is a program to identify people who are frequently and repeatedly booked into jail for minor offenses. Social workers will proactively offer these “familiar faces” services to prevent their next arrests. This program will save lives and taxpayer dollars.

• The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a real thing, exacerbated by an overreliance on police to solve school disciplinary problems. Youth who drop out of high school are five times more likely to go to prison during their lifetimes. We all know that expulsion to the streets carries only negative outcomes for youths and their neighborhoods, but we continue to do it thousands of times a year. A new program in Seattle diverts youths who are expelled from high school to a seat in a community college, where a custom curriculum is delivered in lieu of suspension or prosecution.

• Restorative justice: A community group invented the “180 Program” as a culturally relevant motivational workshop for youths after their first brush with the law. The prosecutor refers more than 400 youths a year to the community, which turns the arrest into a teachable moment. Recently a group of restorative-justice advocates adopted the case of a young man charged with the robbery of a classmate’s tennis shoes. After nearly a year of working in peacemaking circles with the youth and his family, and with the support of the victim, the young man avoided two years in juvenile prison when he was sentenced to probation and community service. Once skeptical community leaders are now asking for a bigger role in fashioning accountability through this healing process.

These examples demonstrate how prosecutors can use their considerable discretion to align their decisions with the community’s will. Community justice offers one template for prosecutors who realize the urgency of their roles in restoring faith in the criminal-justice system. All they have to do is reach out, listen and trust the community to develop its own sense of justice.

Dan Satterberg is King County prosecuting attorney. Ron Wright, a professor of criminal law at Wake Forest University, co-authored two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing.