Joaquin Ciria knows firsthand the power of the so-called progressive prosecutor movement, which wants to make the US criminal justice system less harsh and more ethical.
In 1991, he was convicted of first degree murder for the shooting death of his friend Felix Bastarrica. Despite the flaws in the case against Ciria – including the fact that the jury never heard an alibi witness – the 29-year-old Beltza was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
Ciria wasn’t released until April of this year. His salvation was an investigation by the San Francisco Attorney Innocence Commission, a group of experts working to review claims of wrongful conviction. If a majority votes to vacate the conviction, the team takes its findings to the DA for a final decision. The DA who succeeded in freeing Ciria: Chesa Boudin.
Ciria, now 61, has enormous respect for Boudin, who was ousted from office in a historic and widely watched election in June.
“He’s not afraid,” Ciria told CNN, referring to Boudin. “He doesn’t play politics with people’s lives.”
Fears about the crime have prompted intense political scrutiny of Boudin and other progressive prosecutors — last week, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives filed articles of impeachment against Larry Krasner, saying the Philadelphia DA’s policies are a threat to public safety. Some have argued that the recall of the former San Francisco DA shows that the movement is out of touch with voters’ concerns.
But the claim that the reform-minded prosecutors’ approach is fueling violent crime is false, according to recent research. Also, some experts say, focusing too much on Boudin’s fate as the midterm elections approach is to ignore progressive prosecutors who are successfully advancing ambitious agendas, and to devalue efforts to reshape a system that disproportionately hurts people of color.
“Less punitive prosecutors are a form of harm reduction, not a solution,” legal observer Josie Duffy Rice. he said this year. “The paradox of prosecutors is this: they have the power to create many problems, but not enough power to solve them.”
He add, “Prosecutors are still prosecutors. But it is necessary to have someone in office who practices some moderation. It won’t solve the deeper-rooted problems in San Francisco or anywhere. That’s not work. But it will reduce the damage.”
Speaking to CNN, James Forman Jr., a Yale University law professor and author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” echoed some of Rice’s sentiments.
“All my life, the only way to be a prosecutor was to say you were going to lock up more people than your opponent – and for longer and in worse conditions,” said Forman, who has been a public defender. . “The idea that there’s a new generation that says, ‘Let’s talk about decriminalizing low-level offenses. Let’s talk about restorative justice. Let’s ask ourselves if a long prison sentence is justified in all these cases. Let’s look at old convictions, if they were obtained using false information. to see where they were’ – we need to ask these questions throughout the system. And one place we need them is in the prosecutor’s office.”
As the country prepares for key DA races — including San Francisco, Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix) and Minnesota’s Hennepin County (Minneapolis) — reformist prosecutors and their supporters insist the movement to rethink the criminal justice system must continue.
The freedom of people like Ciria may depend on it.
While some say Boudin’s recall spells doom for progressive prosecutors elsewhere, those predictions may be tantalizing.
On the one hand, a number of factors made the election somewhat unique and, as a result, it was difficult to draw broad conclusions.
“Boudin clearly struggled as a politician, including at one point saying that one person had committed murder in what seemed like a ‘no-brainer.’ they may reflect opinions more than their policies,” Fordham University Law Professor John Pfaff wrote for Slate in July.
He continued, “Not to mention that it’s dangerous to draw big conclusions from low-turnout elections, even those that push a larger narrative. accepted. And San Francisco voters recognized Boudin from the start: At the end of the city’s election process in 2019, he barely won, beating the much more moderate Suzy Loftus 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
Also, while some progressive prosecutors are struggling – remember the campaign against Krasner or the backlash in some quarters against Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg – others are succeeding.
For example, in August, in Chittenden County – Vermont’s most populous county – the reformer Sarah George prevailed in her primary. In Contra Costa, California, progressive DA Diana Becton won re-election in June. And last month, in Durham, North Carolina, reformer Satana Deberry won the primary in a landslide.
Boudin summarized why his recall was not significant.
“For as long as I can remember, the criminal justice reform movement has had (at least) three major successes,” he told CNN. “One, the failure of the subpoena against (Los Angeles County DA) George Gascon. Two, the re-election of Sarah George in Vermont. And three, the 10-year ouster of a very conservative, regressive, progressive reform Democrat (Steve Mulroy) from Tennessee (Amy Weirich).
As a former San Francisco DA, George is “really optimistic” about the future of progressive prosecution.
“At the same time that Chesa’s recall was successful, there were other progressive DAs in California running for re-election against tougher-on-crime people. They won,” he told CNN. “So I feel really good about the movement. I think it’s definitely growing.”
Experts who spoke to CNN say that in the run-up to the midterm elections, it’s important not to lose sight of the core value of attempts to reimagine the country’s criminal justice system.
“It’s hard to find people who haven’t already been affected by our legal system, who haven’t seen up close the ways it doesn’t work,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Fair and Just Prosecution group, told CNN. . “They’ve seen it affect a loved one or a friend or a colleague or a neighbor or another member of their circle.”
He pointed out that the traditional approach to crime disproportionately burdens people of color.
“We know that racial disparities exist at every stage of the criminal system: who is stopped, who is arrested, what is the post-arrest treatment, who is prosecuted, how long they end up behind bars and, at the most extreme. cases, for whom the death penalty is sought and when it is imposed,” added Krinsky.
Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and head of the Innocence Commission, put some of those sentiments a little clearer.
“Before the commission existed, no DA in the history of San Francisco had agreed to exonerate anyone,” he told CNN. “Instead, they fought tooth and nail to keep innocent people locked up, which is absolutely disgraceful, especially in a city that claims to be progressive.”
Bazelon continued: “I don’t think going back to the tough times of crime is going to make us safe. And I think there are tons and tons of academic and empirical research that proves that point.”
It bears repeating that progressive sentencing is not a panacea for crime.
“There is no single thing that will undo the 50 years of rigidity built up in all 50 states and 3,000 counties and institutions in our penal system,” said Forman, the Yale law professor.
In short, pushback needs to come from all sides: judges who won’t lock people up just because they’re poor, legislatures willing to revise long sentences for multiple crimes, public defenders who get more money, prosecutors. who take a progressive approach to law.
Forman explained that he would like progressive prosecutors to commit in the future shrinking the size and scope of their offices – because if successful, they will find ways to reduce crime that do not rely on the police and prisons.
“I really think the victory will come when they’re not needed,” he said. “Now, we know that such a world will probably never exist, because throughout history every country in the world has had crimes. But if we set that as a goal, as a dream, we can measure success whether we are taking steps in that direction or not.”