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Prosecutors are overwhelmed. These orgs are taking the pressure off

Prosecutors are overwhelmed. These orgs are taking the pressure off

Find out how justice that focuses on safer, faster resolution can be more effective — and better for the community — than punishment.

Justice delayed is justice denied. This oft-repeated legal phrase is playing out in prosecutors’ offices across the country. According to a recent survey of 31 prosecutors’ offices across 24 states by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), there has been an average increase of 62% in case backlogs since the court disruptions due to COVID-19. As with many other areas of society, the pandemic exacerbated a long-standing problem.

Audrey Cromwell, Gallatin County attorney in Montana discovered this when she took office a year ago. She found 500 felony cases that hadn’t even been reviewed. Some hadn’t been touched in 15 years. “It’s my priority and hope that we focus on ‘people crime’ first, and that’s not what was happening. The easier cases were being filed.”

Backlogs like the one in Gallatin County jeopardize public safety. Cromwell relied on volunteer hours from public attorneys to review the untouched assault cases. She found that 40% of the sexual assault cases could not be prosecuted because they had already expired beyond the statute of limitations.

Doug Ammar is the executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, a legal nonprofit that represents people impacted by the criminal justice system. He explained that delays are a symptom of much bigger issues. “We’ve arrested so many more people,” he said. “We’ve made more things crimes, and we’ve given more crimes a higher degree of punishment.”

What if we could solve the backlogs before cases even reach the prosecutors’ offices and, in doing so, make our communities safer? The organizations below are working on just that. They are exploring innovative ways to manage nonviolent offenses, take pressure off the criminal justice system, and make sure justice is still served. They have seen how alternative approaches can be more effective than punishment-oriented solutions.

1. What if victims of crimes were more empowered?

“You’ve got 1,500 juveniles every year getting arrested in a small neighborhood,” said Cliff Nellis. “Crime is not something that we can arrest our way out of.”

Nellis is executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC), an organization that provides free legal services to members of its Chicago community. By offering nontraditional paths to justice and public well-being — things like mental health support, job training, and restorative justice groups — Nellis’ organization is taking pressure off the criminal justice system and improving community safety in the process.

In LCLC’s restorative justice program, victims sit with those accused of crimes against them and talk face-to-face. All parties participate in finding a way forward and repairing the harm that has been done. This method relies on community — not incarceration — to reduce reoffense and improve public safety. It’s working: 89% of the youth Nellis has worked with have not returned to crime.

The criminal justice system is not equipped to see youth as youth, Nellis explained. Its one-size-fits-all approach to crime and punishment doesn’t improve the community or help the troubled youth committing crimes. Referring to restorative justice sessions, he said, “Real transformation takes place in the healing circle because you have a greater understanding of what happened and a greater human connection to the people impacted by it. The victim is restored and healed, the defendant takes a more meaningful, personal level of accountability, and the community comes together to support that process.”

2. Reducing the backlog caused by recidivism

The criminal justice system’s emphasis on punishment isn’t working. If it were, recidivism, or repeat offenses that send people back into incarceration, wouldn’t be so high in the United States. Right now the federal recidivism rate stands at about 50% — a number that is surely adding to the overwhelm affecting prosecutors. FreeWorld wants to change that.

Poverty is the strongest predictor of recidivism. Right now, 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and the jobs that are available to them pay $12,000 per year on average.

FreeWorld offers access to a long-lasting career that foments independence and a sense of purpose by training formerly incarcerated people to drive commercial trucks in 45 days. According to Jason Wang, co-founder of FreeWorld, a career in trucking is life-changing for people who once believed criminal activity was their only option for supporting themselves. “Once you’ve got about two years of experience, you can earn $80,000-$120,000 a year,” he said. “At FreeWorld, our tagline is ‘Providing Legitimate First Chances.’ We’re going to invest in you. We don’t care about your history. We don’t care about your past. All we care about is your future.”

3. Using AI to assist overloaded public defenders 

Prosecutors aren’t the only attorneys feeling the crunch of an overburdened criminal justice system. Public defenders often have overwhelming caseloads — some estimates say they only have time to spend an average of seven minutes per case.

Devshi Mehrotra and Leslie Jones-Dove, two young tech entrepreneurs, believe that restoring balance to the criminal justice system is key to improving public safety in America. That’s why they founded JusticeText, a transcription and machine learning platform that helps public defenders analyze critical audio and video footage — evidence so overwhelming that it would otherwise likely go unused in their clients’ defense.

“Until we had this sort of technology, we had to rely on the truth of the offense report,” said Jacquelyn Carpenter, a public defender in Harris County, Texas. “And now we’re seeing that the offense report and the truth may not necessarily line up.”

Mehrotra and Jones-Dove hope that by bringing more balance, JusticeText can make a significant difference in due process and justice for all defendants in our country, allowing the system to focus resources on reducing crime and ensuring public safety.

“We want to be part of what redefining public safety means in America and the role that public defenders play in holding our criminal legal system accountable,” said Mehrotra.

4. Seeking true justice for accused and convicted citizens

Prosecutor backlogs put pressure on the system to shuttle people through as fast as possible, but according to Doug Ammar of the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), doing so makes true justice impossible.

Ammar has spent more than three decades seeking fairness in sentencing and true justice for accused and convicted citizens. “Our criminal justice system is not built to deliver justice,” he said. “It’s built to deliver punishment.” His organization is fiercely working to get the justice system to see the whole person and the whole situation before issuing rote sentences that make it difficult for individuals to alter the trajectory of their lives.

GJP applies both legal and social programs, such as counseling, job training, and referral services, to support low-income defendants in court, in prison, and upon release. Every year, the organization represents over 500 people.

Ammar explained that GJP is different. “We empower judges and prosecutors to see the whole person, the whole situation, to challenge their assumptions,” he said. “We empower them to dispense healing and a better future for these individuals and stop the push for punishment. We empower them to dispense justice.”

GJP clients are contributing to safer communities, if only by not returning to crime themselves. They are 10 times less likely to be convicted than the national average. This reduction in crime also allows the justice system to focus on cases and defendants that could potentially impact public safety.

The organization’s policy work has led to fairer convictions and increased access to housing and employment for the 4.3 million people who have a Georgia criminal history.

5. Police officers reforming the system from within

Trust between law enforcement and community members is critical to public safety and a well-balanced criminal justice system.

Andy Saunders, a former police officer, understands most law enforcement officers are committed to serving their communities, yet recognizes the prevalent trust issues stemming from poor police-community relationships. He and his colleague, Brittany Nestor, who continues to work in law enforcement, launched New Blue to mend this trust deficit. What makes New Blue unique is that it seeks to drive solutions from within police departments, empowering officers who are willing to challenge the status quo of police culture itself.

New Blue is a year-long fellowship granting financial support, education, and networking opportunities to officers eager to make a change from within the system. Each participant develops a unique solution addressing a community issue, and New Blue assists in implementing it.

For example, Sergeant Meg Hamilton applied for the fellowship to see if she could get more police officers in Madison, Wisconsin, to participate in Community Restorative Court (CRC), a model of justice that mediates conversations between suspects — called respondents — victims, and police officers.

“When the officer and the respondent see one another in an open, human-to-human space — and not during an encounter in the street — a whole different conversation is possible,” said Hamilton. “My hope is the respondent sees the officer as a person, not just a uniform. I similarly hope officers can see the respondent as a person with a story, instead of just a suspect.” Once all parties have the opportunity to be heard, the respondent is given a “repair harm agreement”: a contract in which the respondent has to undertake a series of obligations to close out their case.

The barrier Hamilton is working with New Blue to overcome is compensation for the police officers’ time. In the existing system, officers get paid overtime for testifying in traditional court on a day off. If they go to CRC, it’s donated time. So Hamilton is using a microgrant from New Blue to pay officers for their time at CRC. It’s helping officers overcome their skepticism about the program. “If we want to expose cops to a new system, we need to bring them to the table voluntarily and compensate them,” she explained.

“We’re in an era of community calls for police to transform and change and to find solutions that aren’t arrests and aren’t tickets,” said Hamilton. “And the only way that change happens long-term in policing is from within the profession. It’s worth the investment.”

At their core, New Blue projects like Hamilton’s are about improving trust. “We’re looking for solutions that enable citizens and police to work together,” Saunderson said. Topics include restorative justice, arrest reduction, compassionate policing, diversity, and recruitment. And they all fall under the umbrella of trust.”

Every year, a new group of officers from across the nation joins the program, puts their solutions into action, and shares their findings. The first group of officers remains connected, consistently exchanging ideas. They’ve reported that New Blue’s initiative has been successful within their departments and has resulted in progress that would have otherwise been unachievable on their own.

The Stand Together community partners with changemakers who are tackling the root causes of America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together’s criminal justice efforts, and explore ways you can partner with them.

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