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Opinion writer

Over at In Justice Today, Josie Duffy Rice takes a look at the powerful state prosecutor lobby, which has scuttled criminal justice reform efforts across the country.

Just a few months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed sure that criminal justice reform was imminent. During his annual State of the State address in January, he called for a legislative package that would limit civil asset forfeiture, reform discovery, reduce trial delays, and most notably, significantly reduce the use of cash bail. “For far too long, our antiquated criminal justice system has created a two-tier system where outcomes depend purely on economic status — undermining the bedrock principle that one is innocent until proven guilty,” Cuomo said. …

Until late March, it looked as if significant change might move forward. But then, suddenly, it was over. The budget, signed earlier this month and primarily negotiated in private by the governor and just three powerful legislators, did not include the criminal justice reforms Cuomo so adamantly supported just weeks ago. Despite what he said to Akeem, the budget doesn’t fund bail reform at all. …

Whose fault is it that criminal justice reform failed in New York? While there’s plenty of blame to go around — a corrupt legislature, Cuomo’s craven maneuvering, the bail bond lobby — there’s one behind-the-scenes player whose influence gets little attention: the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York (DAASNY).

DAASNY has been shaping criminal justice legislation in New York for over a century. The association’s membership includes all 62 elected district attorneys in the state, as well as many assistant prosecutors. In many ways DAASNY is like any other professional organization: It holds trainings, hosts conferences, and issues a newsletter. But its enormous leverage in the state legislature makes it uncommonly powerful. DAASNY largely serves as a lobbying group — and a very effective one.

Rice tells similar stories from other states, such as how the prosecutor lobby in Alabama defeated a civil asset forfeiture reform bill, despite overwhelming support from Alabama voters and interest groups from across the political spectrum. In California, a prosecutors’ group stalled bail reform. In Arizona, a group is pushing for tougher drug sentences and fighting forfeiture and bail reforms. In Indiana, they’re fighting marijuana decriminalization. And in Nebraska, a group fought against checks on the use of jailhouse informants.

It’s particularly bothersome when these groups lobby with taxpayer money, either directly or indirectly. As I reported here at The Watch last year, that appears to be the case with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA), whose chief lobbyist — a prosecutor named Hugo Holland who was forced to resign as assistant district attorney for Caddo Parish several years ago — appears to be paid with public funds from one or more of the state’s parishes. But it can also happen indirectly, such as when prosecutors lobby legislatures themselves while they’re on the clock. As one reform activist put it, if public defenders were using taxpayer dollars to lobby for shorter sentences, it would be on the front page of every newspaper. But these prosecutor groups get away with it, I guess because they’re seen by lawmakers more as knowledgeable policy experts than partisan interest groups. But that they always seem to come down on the side of longer sentences, less leniency and more punitiveness ought to call such assumptions into question.

Rice closes by noting that the Louisiana legislature recently considered two bills that would have held the state’s prosecutors more accountable. If you read this page at all regularly, you know that Louisiana is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to prosecutor misconduct. The state’s defense attorneys and their assistants have a long history of Brady violations, including in death-sentence cases, and it it has one of the highest wrongful conviction rates in America. Rice notes that after opposition from the LDAA, neither bill made it out of committee.