DAs Can Make the Difference

Originally published on Alabama Political Reporter

By Dillon Nettles, ACLU of Alabama

Alabamians are ready to see a broken criminal justice system fixed, and it’s time to let those sitting in the most powerful position know it — our District Attorneys (DAs).

District Attorneys are the lead prosecutors in counties across the state, but what voters may not realize is that the District Attorney wields an incredible amount of power to bring about meaningful changes in a broken system.

DAs make choices that impact how a person progresses through the criminal justice system. DA decisions influence everything from charging and bail to plea deals and sentencing. But DAs aren’t the only ones who can make a choice. We the voters choose, too. And on November 6, Jefferson County will get a chance to choose their next DA: current DA Mike Anderton, Republican appointed by Governor Kay Ivey, or former Deputy DA Danny Carr, Democrat replaced by Anderton’s appointment.

This election will determine whether Jefferson County residents will have a DA who is working to support Alabama communities, and we are hoping that both DA candidates are listening to what voters want. Recent polling shows 78.4% of Birmingham voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports criminal justice reform. So a smart justice platform isn’t just good policy – its good politics, too.

We need DAs who will choose to reduce racial disparities. As of 2017, one in 30 Black men were imprisoned in Alabama – nearly four times that of white men in the state. Jefferson County’s next DA can establish trainings to prevent bias in sentencing recommendations and gather race-based data to ensure full transparency in the practices of their office. District Attorneys can help put an end to racial disparities in our justice system and ensure all are treated fairly under the law. If we make them.

We need DAs who will choose to end the war on drugs. Within and outside of our criminal justice system, Alabama does not provide adequate options for treating those struggling with substance abuse. Too often, DAs choose to prosecute drug offenders rather than help them get treatment. Estimates indicate that 75 to 80 percent of people in Alabama prisons have a history of substance abuse. Jefferson County’s next DA can advocate for increased funding that would expand diversion programs at no cost to participants and refuse to prosecute low level marijuana possession. If we make them.

We need DAs who will choose to support communities instead of criminalizing poverty. A recent report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice uncovered the devastating impact that fines and fees have on the poor. In a 2014 study, more than half of Alabama participants reported that they neglected necessities such as rent in order to pay fines and fees. DAs can stop jailing people for failure to pay fines and fees and encourage more dismissals with a finding of indigency. If we make them.

We need DAs who will choose to treat kids like kids. If you take a look at Alabama’s prisons today, you might be surprised to find that there are children amongst those incarcerated in the adult system. In Alabama, children who are 16 or older are automatically tried as adults for certain offenses, and the Alabama law allows children as young as 14 to be tried as adults upon request by the DA. The District Attorney has the power to decide against prosecuting children as adults when not mandated by law. The District Attorney can treat kids like kids. If we make them.

We can make them when we vote on November 6. Alabama’s criminal justice system needs reform, but we won’t get there without the most influential decision makers on board. That’s why when the people of Jefferson County elect their next DA, they’ll have more than a name or a party affiliation on the ballot.

Reducing racial disparities in the justice system is on the ballot. Criminalizing poverty is on the ballot. The war on drugs is on the ballot. Juvenile justice is on the ballot. Smart justice is on the ballot.