Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the group Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) that has spearheaded the effort, said prosecutors have a special obligation to see the correctional system since they control the “front door” to the justice system. She hopes such visits broaden prosecutors’ perspectives and inform decisions on sentencing, bail and alternatives to incarceration.
FJP believes it is also important for prosecutors to grapple with the problems that plague many correctional centers, whether it’s crumbling buildings, overcrowding or a lack of health and psychiatric care.
“No prosecutor should be putting people in places they haven’t seen or walked through,” Krinsky said.
Some prosecutors, including George Gascón when he was San Francisco district attorney, have been visiting prisons for years. Gascón regularly met with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, but the idea has been gaining traction recently. The new pledge should drastically increase the number of prosecutors visiting detention facilities.
The signatories include Vermont Attorney General Thomas J. Donovan Jr., Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. Local prosecutors making the pledge also include two commonwealth’s attorneys-elect in Virginia: Parisa Tafti-Dehghani in Arlington and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County.
Portsmouth, Va., Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales, who also signed the pledge, said prison visits have changed her perspective on the job. She first took her staff to St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Va., in 2016.
Morales said prosecutors went to offer seminars on reentry, restoration of rights and getting jobs after prison, but she said she learned just as much herself — particularly after an open session in which prisoners asked her questions. She has also taken probation and parole officials and a U.S. attorney to visit the prison.
“We had no idea how much of the impact was going to be on us,” Morales said. “We got to see people as family members and community members first. We usually encounter people at their lowest point coming into the criminal justice system.”
Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg of King County, Wash., who is another signatory, said he first visited a prison as a law student but has made the practice a fixture of his work in the past decade. He recently discussed criminal justice reform with prosecutors and a group called the Black Prisoners Caucus at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash.
Satterberg said such discussions have informed a recent effort to reevaluate long sentences brought about by Washington state’s three-strikes law. He said there has been a reluctance among prosecutors “to look over the prison wall.”
“It quickly injects humanity into our work. When you sit and listen to their stories, most of them had difficult and traumatic upbringings,” Satterberg said. “More people need to see what their local prison looks and need to go home and think about whether they could do a month there, let alone the 20 years the criminal justice system talks about.”