Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins marched last week with prosecutors from around the country across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where civil rights protesters were brutally beaten by law enforcement officers in 1965.
The march highlighted the prosecutors’ conviction that they now stand symbolically on the other side of that historic span, as the vanguard of a new movement to make law enforcement fairer and less punitive for people of color and the poor.
“This is the new civil rights movement in terms of dignity and respect for everyone in the system,” said Kimberly Gardner, the first African-American chief prosecutor in St. Louis.
Rollins can often seem a singular figure in Boston, the one elected official openly challenging the political establishment in her drive to reverse decades of tough-on-crime policies and break a cycle of incarceration that falls heavily on minorities.
But as the march underscored, she is part of a wave of about 40 like-minded prosecutors recently elected across the country, many of whom are pushing similar agendas and encountering the same blowback in their communities.
Many were elected as the result of activism that has drawn attention to the role charging decisions can play in driving incarceration rates, as well as anger over the police killings of unarmed black men.
Several are the first women or people of color to hold their offices. Although the group represents just a fraction of the 2,400 elected prosecutors nationwide, many have drawn outsized attention for pledging not to prosecute such offenses as shoplifting and marijuana possession and to increase scrutiny of police shootings.
“I can’t tell you what all 2,400 elected prosecutors are facing,” said Kimberly Foxx, the first black woman to lead the prosecutor’s office in Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago. “I do know for this small subset with whom I am in contact that there are eerily similar patterns and attacks that can’t be ignored.”
Most of the criticism has come from police unions and their supporters.
In a speech last month to the Fraternal Order of Police, Attorney General William Barr blasted “district attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”
“The results will be predictable,” Barr told the group. “More crime; more victims.”
Critics on the left, meanwhile, have questioned how progressive these prosecutors really are, given that they must work within the confines of the criminal system.
“The paradox of ‘progressive prosecution’ is that the criminal legal system is an oppressive institution,” an article in the Harvard Law Review, which publishes unsigned student work, argued in December. The article contended that prosecutors’ budget requests would be better spent on addressing educational inequities and other root causes of crime.
Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge, said research shows prosecutors have played a significant role in mass incarceration and the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities because they can decide whether to charge a person with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence or request cash bail.
“Progressive prosecutors are trying to say, ‘How should we exercise our discretion in a way that can give people another chance, in a way that can maximize our resources on violent crime?’” Gertner said, adding that prosecutors can be “the engine of criminal justice reform.”
“We, in the past 30 years in this country, have gone so far off the rails in terms of imprisoning people that any change is a good one,” she said, “and prosecutors are in the best position to affect that.”
Miriam Krinsky — a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who leads a group called Fair and Just Prosecution that supports reform-minded prosecutors — cautioned that the movement is just beginning and that many who embrace the agenda have just been elected.
“Time will tell how far it goes and where we come out on the other side,” said Krinsky, whose group sponsored the march across the Pettus Bridge and also has taken Rollins and other prosecutors to view the criminal system in Germany and the decriminalization of drug use in Portugal. “Hopefully, where we come out is that [prosecutors] get out of the way and the justice system is no longer filling this space and public health and mental health is the default response.”
Many of the prosecutors say they expected to battle entrenched local powers when they came into office but have found the opposition much harsher than they anticipated.
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police has taken a no-confidence vote in Foxx, and 40 area police officials called on her to resign in April. They accused her of not prosecuting assaults on officers and blasted her decision to drop charges against Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor accused of paying acquaintances to stage a racist and homophobic attack against him.
Foxx said she suspects many of the attacks on her have nothing to do with her policy agenda, which includes treating retail thefts under $1,000 as misdemeanors and declining to prosecute drivers whose licenses have been suspended for failing to pay fines.
She pointed out that all 40 officers who called on her to resign are white and that a rally outside her office organized by the Fraternal Order of Police drew protesters linked to white nationalist groups, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I can’t tell you what their motivations are, but I can tell you myself, and Rachael Rollins, and the less than 1 percent of prosecutors who are women of color, have seen a difference in the way we are treated,” Foxx said.
Earlier this month, a Boston judge refused to grant a request by one of Rollins’s prosecutors to drop disorderly conduct charges against protesters arrested at a Straight Pride parade. Rollins appealed to a justice on the state’s highest court, who ruled the local judge had “no authority” to overrule her prosecutorial discretion.
“I’m often asked, is this an evolution, or a revolution?” Rollins said. “It’s both.”
She pointed out that while her predecessor, Dan Conley, routinely dismissed 55 percent of the offenses on Rollins’s “decline to prosecute” list, according to an ACLU study, “it’s revolutionary because I put it in writing because I want to be held accountable.”
Foxx, the Chicago prosecutor, said she finds it strange that President Trump and many Democratic presidential candidates are embracing criminal justice reform at the same time it remains so polarizing on the local level.
“I have cognitive dissonance with that,” she said. “I cannot reconcile how this is a conversation nationally but on the ground the pushback is ferocious.”
As the prosecutors have come under siege, many have turned to each other for support.
“It has become a fraternity,” said Wesley Bell, St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor, who was elected to the Ferguson, Mo., City Council after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in 2014. “We are working with organizations to come up with best policies. We bounce ideas off one another.”
Foxx said that network has become a source of comfort.
“The headlines in your paper and the noise in your area can feel particularly isolating,” she said. “And when you talk, it’s less isolating. You see someone who is contending with this. There’s a level of encouragement with that.”
Krinsky said she believes the progressive prosecution movement will grow and noted that some have recently been elected in rural areas and red states.
“I think they’re pushing the envelope in ways we just have not seen before,” she said. “It’s a completely new moment that is a result of communities that want something different, and that will bring about a sea change.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .