The American criminal justice system has become less 'just' over recent decades and prosecutors bear much of the responsibility.
The tough-on-crime culture of the 1980's and 90's shifted power away from judges and juries and toward prosecutors who embraced their new power to wield mandatory sentencing laws to rack up the convictions demanded by the constituents who elected them.
The problem is they never let go of that power or the culture that rewards it, even as crime rates have plummeted to historic lows that are almost 50% below their peak in the 1990's.
They continue use sentencing to extract plea bargains from almost 95% of the people who come before them, even without evidence of guilt. Some impose draconian bail and probation conditions monitored by for-profit companies that extract a premium. Others run modern day debtors' prisons, jailing people for misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting because they can't afford bail.
Yet, there's cause for hope. A new breed of DA's are using prison as a last resort, focusing instead on "diversion" programs that offer a second chance instead of long prison sentences that research shows make worse criminals.
Is it time to rethink who belongs in prison?
- Emily Bazelon - Staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, co-host of Slate’s "Political Gabfest," lecturer at Yale Law School, and the author of two books, most recently, Charged: The New Movement To Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration (@emilybazelon)
- Tony Messenger - Metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Commentary. (@tonymess)
- Samara Freemark - Reporter and senior producer of "In the Dark," an investigative podcast from APM Reports, a division of American Public Media. (@sfreemark)
Colin McEnroe and Chion Wolf contributed to this show, which originally aired on May 22, 2019.