Do you know what would happen if you were arrested today?
Which official would choose what crimes to charge you with?
Who would determine how many charges you’d face?
And if you were convicted, do you know who would decide your sentence?
It’s not only up to the judge overseeing your case—state legislators and district attorneys have a lot of influence over how much time you’d spend incarcerated.
Here are a few of the key elected officials involved in the local criminal justice system, and what influence they have over your case.
When you’re arrested, the first branch of the criminal justice system you’ll deal with is law enforcement.
In most states, that means you’ll end up in the custody of your county sheriff—Alaska and Connecticut are the only states without the position. Most states have sheriffs who are elected by voters, with only Hawaii and Rhode Island selecting them by political appointment.
Sheriffs have primary law enforcement responsibilities and substantial authority to practice them. Unlike police chiefs, they have few checks on their power. This is because the vast majority don’t report to elected officials like local mayors.
Though duties vary from state to state, they have some common responsibilities: overseeing local jails, transporting prisoners and pretrial detainees, and investigating crimes. Some even act as county coroners, investigating causes of death.
While it might seem that being elected would hold sheriffs accountable to the community, that isn’t always the case.
During the civil rights movement, southern sheriffs would often crack down on Black protestors who tried to vote. In Selma, Alabama, peaceful demonstrators were clubbed, tear gassed, blasted with fire hoses, and attacked with police dogs. While this incident is one of the most memorable of the era, similar scenes played out throughout the South in the 1960s.
In 2013, a group of 500 sheriffs nationwide agreed not to enforce any federal gun legislation in their jurisdictions—a prominent example of how they are able to selectively choose which laws to enforce with few consequences.
Sheriffs also play a huge role in immigration enforcement, with many racially profiling and detaining Latinx people. Some of the detainees are even held for up to 48 hours after they are supposed to be released. Despite multiple court rulings against these practices, they continue.
Finally, research by the Brennan Center for Justice has shown that sheriffs may bow to public pressure and try to appear “tough on crime,” particularly during election years. While this may appeal to voters, the truth is that these policies don’t work. Crime has decreased worldwide in recent decades, and unlike the U.S., most countries that have seen this shift haven’t taken a more punitive approach.
Next, you’ll run up against the prosecutor in your case—this is the person who decides what crimes to charge you with and what penalties to seek in court.
The top prosecutor in most counties is called the district attorney (DA), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls them “arguably the most powerful people in criminal justice reform.” It’s easy to see why—DAs have a huge amount of influence over the fate of the defendants they charge.
DAs can decide:
– Whether to offer defendants access to drug treatment or charge them with a crime
– Whether to charge teenagers in the juvenile justice system or prosecute them as adults
– Whether to charge someone with a felony or misdemeanor
– Whether to charge someone under statutes with mandatory minimum sentences
– Whether to seek the death penalty
Because of the enormous power they hold, DAs directly influence the extent of racial disparities in sentencing. They can also decline to charge police in misconduct cases.
Since DAs decide what kind of plea deals to offer and what charges a defendant will face, they can pressure people to plead guilty to a crime before they ever see a day in court—especially if they ask judges to set a high cash bail. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found in 2018 that fewer than 3% of state and federal criminal cases result in a trial, with a whopping 97% resolved in plea deals.
This also means DAs can make huge changes within their counties. In fact, many progressive prosecutors are running on platforms aimed at reforming the criminal justice system.
In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, DA Rachael Rollins pledged in her 2018 election campaign to decriminalize a host of nonviolent offenses including shoplifting, larceny under $250, and drug possession with intent to distribute.
In Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, Larry Krasner has made waves by heavily promoting diversion programs to lower incarceration rates, and promising to stop seeking cash bail for dozens of low-level charges. As part of his push for reform, he also blacklisted 29 Philadelphia police officers, labeling them “unreliable witnesses” in court due to past criminal charges and misconduct.
Trial Court Judges
Finally, you’ll end up in front of the judge who will hear your case and decide what, if any, sentence you’ll receive.
How do they end up on the bench? It varies from state to state—in 23 states, local judges are elected, and in others, they’re appointed by state lawmakers.
Trial court judges have important responsibilities, but they may not be what you think. They can:
– Issue search and arrest warrants
– Set bail for those awaiting trial
– Rule on pretrial motions
– And accept guilty pleas
However, when it comes to deciding sentences, judges aren’t the only ones with influence. The decisions made by the sheriff and prosecutor earlier in the process have often narrowed what type of ruling the judge is able to make.
And in the background, overshadowing all the individual people directly involved in the criminal justice system, there’s a larger force at work.
Ultimately, state laws are what determine which acts are criminalized, and what punishments will be given.
That means that state senators, representatives, mayors, governors, and other elected officials all make decisions that shape the ways in which laws are enforced and what kind of sentences judges are able to give.
State and federal laws often require judges to rule in particular ways—some examples are three strike laws, sex offender registries, and mandatory minimums. The decision to charge defendants under these laws doesn’t fall on the judge—it’s made by prosecutors.
How Voting Shapes Criminal Justice Reform
While the details vary depending on which state you’re in, you do have the power to influence your local criminal justice system to ensure that it’s fairer and more equitable.
At the ballot box, you have the power to decide which lawmakers are elected. Even if you don’t live in a state with elected judges or DAs, your votes will influence appointments to those offices.
And if you do live in a state where sheriffs, DAs, and judges are elected, it’s time to start paying attention to local elections. Learn as much as you can about candidates’ records and attitudes before casting your vote. These races may seem inconsequential compared to national elections, but your decisions could change your state’s legal landscape.
Find out which local offices are up for election by looking up your state on Ballotpedia.
You could even consider running for office yourself! There are dozens of local races where an ordinary citizen can make an impact on the criminal justice system. Consider running for a city, county, or state office so you can make your voice heard. Learn more about common local offices, their responsibilities, and organizations that can help you set up your campaign in this piece from Generation Progress.
When people close to the issues of criminal justice run for office, major change is possible. Sometimes, a fresh view of the world and personal experience with the problem is what it takes to create reforms that last.