Emily Bazelon’s new book Charged: The New Movement To Transform American Prosecution And End Mass Incarceration is an incredible tour de force that guides readers through America’s broken criminal justice system through the eyes of two young people as they go through the system.
The book reveals the breathtaking amount of power prosecutors wield in our modern legal system and highlights the ways that some reform-minded District Attorneys are using that power to bring change to a broken system.
“Our classic image of the American justice system is a triangle where there’s a judge at the top and the defense lawyer here and the prosecutor here,” Bazelon explains. But what has happened since the 1960s is that we have increasingly tied judges hands in order to ensure tougher sentences and shifted that power towards prosecutors, something Bazelon thinks has gone largely unnoticed by the public. “There’s just this real shift in the power dynamics in the legal system going on and it’s invisible to people outside of it. We just haven’t paid enough attention. But that’s the reality every day in court.”
Freethink sat down with Emily to learn more about her book and this new and this emerging class of district attorneys like Mark Dupree in Kansas City, who has begun requiring his team to be more transparent with defendants about the evidence police have collected against them, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the defense attorney and community activist who has pushed his team to seek shorter sentences, declined to prosecute low-level offenses like marijuana possession, and reform cash bail, and Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn who has been working to expunge misdemeanor marijuana convictions.
But these reforms aren’t easy, even with this power. Krasner has faced lawsuits from the police union and Gonzalez acknowledged last month that the expungement process was going much slower than anticipated — while thousands of convictions were eligible, his office has only fielded “a few dozen applications”.
But, Bazelon says this new class of prosecutors is headed in the right direction. “Our criminal justice system is at a crossroads because we’ve created this huge punishment machine. And it’s still functioning and grinding along every day. But there’s increasing awareness and interest in taking apart that machine by electing a different kind of people to run the criminal justice system. We can change the whole shape of the criminal justice system with people who we elect locally without changing a single law.”