With nearly 2.3 million people throughout the United States locked up in jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, and other forms of confinement, mass incarceration and criminal justice reform have rightfully begun to command widespread attention. Indeed, an ACLU poll found that 91% of Americans support some form of criminal justice reform. In national politics, particularly on the left, that support means elected officials and candidates are increasingly forced to grapple with whether their records on criminal justice reflect outdated ways of thinking about crime and punishment, and what they’ll do differently to ensure fairness and justice for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their communities.
But while much of the national discussion centers on federal-level issues like the War on Drugs and purportedly remedial legislation like the recent First Step Act, the majority of people currently incarcerated in the U.S. entered the system at the state and local levels. With millions of lives in the balance, local officials are the ones who exert the greatest influence on the day-to-day dysfunction of their criminal justice systems. These officials often fly under the radar, as many community members aren’t even aware that several of the most pivotal criminal justice officers are elected. That means people can exercise their political power to hold officials accountable, through both voting and grassroots organizing. Among those officials are sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges who are often subject to direct political pressure and influence by virtue of their elected positions. There are also public defenders, who are unelected but also remain at the mercy of political headwinds as they fight for the resources to defend low-income people.
In each case, the realities of local politics dictate what life looks like for people caught up in the system: Are local sheriffs accountable to local communities, or do they pursue anti-immigrant agendas that put more people in jail? Have the prosecutors come around to the cause of criminal justice reform, or do they hold fast to the old “tough on crime” approach that got so many elected? Do judges reflect the demographics of the communities they serve, or does bias infect the ranks of the state level judiciary?
On these questions and more, community organizers and advocates have led the way in pushing local criminal justice officials toward the right answers. Because so much of criminal justice depends on local politics, activists can and do push for tangible, meaningful reforms in their own backyards.
This series, “The Local Politics of Criminal Justice,” explores the realities of fighting for criminal justice reform at the local level. After our explainer introduces the key elected criminal justice officials, each piece takes a look at a different piece of the system, from the potential impact of progressive prosecutors on state legislatures to the way a group of formerly incarcerated people and allies successfully fought to close one of the oldest jails in the country. Throughout, we shine a light on the activists and organizers working at the grassroots level to push the system toward genuine justice. Dive in below, and consider how you can get involved in your own community.