District attorneys (DAs) are some of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. As government prosecutors, they make key decisions in criminal cases about who gets charged, what they get charged with, and the ultimate punishments they face.
DAs make decisions that impact all of us. Their views on criminal justice policy set the tone for how our communities respond to societal issues including poverty, drug use, racial disparities and juvenile justice. And DAs have great influence on the police and legislature.
For women and families, the decisions that DAs make can have an especially large effect.
That’s because women are the fastest-growing population in American jails and prisons. And once incarcerated, women encounter unique difficulties.
For instance, incarcerated women face barriers to getting health care. Gynecological and obstetric care is often woefully inadequate. In a 2007 government study, one in five pregnant women in prison reported getting no prenatal care, and half of all pregnant women in jails went without care.
Further, incarcerating a woman has ripple effects that almost always hurt children. That’s because 80 percent of women in jail are mothers, and most are primary caregivers to their children. Even worse, 60 percent of these mothers haven’t even been convicted of a crime – they’re simply there waiting for their day in court.
DAs have the power to change that, because they have the power to reduce our reliance on incarceration. Putting fewer people in jail means more moms are home with their kids and more families can stay together.
DAs can ask the court to set personal recognizance bail (i.e. the person arrested is released from jail based on a promise to return) rather than unaffordable cash bail.
They can choose whether or not to prosecute petty crimes or to charge for the lowest-allowable offense, so that jail times are shorter.
And, in many cases, DAs can ask for lower fines and fees so that women do not bankrupt their families while trying to pay off court fines.
Unfortunately, there is little accountability for DAs. Research shows that most people have little understanding of what DAs do, and that few people go down ballot to vote for a DA candidate. Further, most DAs run unopposed, leaving little incentive for them to answer to the public.
The ACLU of Maine is working to change that. Last week, we unveiled a new website to help Mainers understand the role of DAs. The site includes questionnaires filled out by several of the candidates, and lets users compare their answers.
If you care about reducing our reliance on incarceration and keeping families together, you should vote for a DA candidate who does too. Go to DAforME.com to learn more.