Educate Yourself on Local Elections
One of the most effective ways to improve the criminal legal system is to focus on local elections. Although the public and the media spend considerable time talking about federal policy, most people are arrested, prosecuted, and charged in cities and counties. If we want to change those practices, we need to educate ourselves about and participate in elections for district attorneys, judges, and council members who have the power to shape local criminal legal systems and policies.
Learn more about who in your city is running for:
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The district attorney (or “DA”) is the top prosecutor in each jurisdiction. A district attorney can also be known as a commonwealth’s attorney, state’s attorney, or various other names depending on the jurisdiction. The DA hires and manages assistant district attorneys, who prosecute criminal cases.
District attorneys have a lot of discretion to set policies for their office, deciding what criminal charges their prosecutors will pursue, what penalties the office will recommend to a judge or offer in plea negotiations, and whether the office will prioritize alternatives to incarceration. District attorneys can provide holistic services such as counseling services or grief therapy to victims. They can even implement restorative justice programs, which encourage a person who has committed a crime to make amends for the harm they caused through a collaborative process that includes the victim and community. District attorneys can work to end sentencing disparities by declining to prosecute low-level offenses, stopping the transfer of children to adult court, and minimizing the use of sentencing enhancements. In almost all jurisdictions, voters elect the DA.
You can attend town halls and debates during election season to ask DA candidates questions about how they plan to prioritize victims and survivors while working against over-incarceration. You can also support the campaigns of candidates whose values you support, and vote your preferred candidates into office.
JUDGES: In the majority of states, voters choose state and local judges. Judges have the power to implement trauma-informed practices and policies that help survivors feel safe in court. Judges also impact sentencing, because in most cases they have the final say on whether a person receives a term of incarceration and for how long.
If your state elects local judges, you can get involved in judicial races and vote for candidates who pledge to take a trauma-informed approach and who are committed to racial equity. And if judges are appointed, you can pressure the person who appoints–usually the Governor–to appoint fair-minded judges with diverse backgrounds.
CITY COUNCIL/COUNTY COMMISSIONS: City Councils and County Commissions are comprised of elected officials who create local law and policy for their jurisdiction. They pass ordinances and resolutions on criminal justice issues like policing, crime, and victims. The Philadelphia City Council, for example, passed an ordinance that removes police from certain types of traffic stops; the New Orleans City Council decriminalized marijuana by removing penalties for possessing small amounts of it; and the Austin City Council passed a resolution creating a Trauma Recovery Center that will provide wraparound services, resources, and support for victims of crime. These elected bodies also control the budget and allocate funding for police departments, violence prevention programs, Trauma Recovery Centers, and victim compensation programs.
During elections, ask candidates what criminal justice ordinances they would support, what their idea of public safety looks like, and what types of programs they will advocate to fund (e.g., support systems for survivors and/or violence prevention programs). Check out your local city council or county commission meeting schedule and agenda to find opportunities for change.
- Screening Toolkit: Use this toolkit to guide you through the entire process of organizing a screening, from selecting a venue, to promoting your event, to leading a successful discussion, to following up with your audience. It provides a checklist for in-person events and one for virtual events.
- Discussion Guide: This comprehensive discussion guide dives deep into all of the topics explored in the film. It offers questions to pose to viewers as well as sample answers and additional contextual information to enrich the conversation.
- Additional Resources: Use this guide as a starting point for further learning on the topics explored in the film. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it contains articles, books, films, and podcasts that have been helpful and meaningful to our team.