As a former judge who has spent most of my adult life operating within the system, I can state unequivocally that the district attorney is the single most powerful person in the criminal justice system. If we are serious about fundamentally changing the trajectory of a system that over-polices, over-prosecutes and over-incarcerates, then we must elect a district attorney who is actually for reform. Some candidates might say they are to win votes and then prosecute the very communities that got them elected.
In 1962, when I was just 14 years old, a young football player in my hometown of Plaquemine was accused and prosecuted for allegedly assaulting his white girlfriend. I remember sitting in the balcony of the courthouse and watching as this Black teenage boy was denied anything close to a fair trial. It was then that I realized how tragically flawed the system is. That moment sent me on my life’s journey toward advocating for a system that doesn’t punish people simply for being Black.
Unfortunately, since that time the statistics have gotten worse. According to a study by the Vera Institute, Black New Orleanians are 50% more likely to be incarcerated than white New Orleanians. The Orleans Parish District Attorney is uniquely positioned to rectify this inequity. While law enforcement and judges possess broad powers, only the district attorney wields the prosecutorial authority to determine the fate of thousands of residents. It is an awesome responsibility, one that should be entrusted to someone who will dismantle, not perpetuate, the racism embedded in the system.
That is why I am a proud member of the New Orleans People’s DA Coalition, over 30 organizations dedicated to reimagining the district attorney’s office as an ethical, equitable, compassionate and accountable institution that will end the city’s era of mass incarceration.
To enact real change, we need a district attorney who works for us, not against us. One who embraces transparency and makes data available to the public. One who will pursue true alternatives to incarceration. One who will end cash bail as we know it and stop unjust marijuana prosecutions. And one who will end the death penalty in New Orleans.
At a forum hosted by the People’s DA Coalition, we heard each of the four candidates for district attorney lay out their vision for the city’s future. On an array of issues, these candidates took stances that underscore how they define reform. I urge every voter to explore the nuance of the candidates’ answers and the specifics of their positions. I also urge every voter to explore their records. The best way to figure out what a district attorney will do in the future is to see what they have done in the past.
While “reform” is a term that is often tossed around lightly, it will be up to us as voters to parse through the campaign rhetoric and elect a candidate who is actually committed to ushering in a new era. But our duty does not end at selecting a new district attorney.
We must hold the next district attorney’s feet to the fire to ensure that policies like those outlined in the coalition’s platform are enacted.
New Orleans has a once in a generation opportunity to elect a new district attorney who will turn the tide on this era of mass incarceration. The next district attorney will play an outsized role in shaping the criminal justice system for decades to come. Let’s not squander this moment.
Calvin Johnson is former chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.