Progressive Prosecutors Promise Change. Their power is being stripped away

San Francisco District Attorney elect Chesa Boudin will certainly face challenges when he assumes office in January.

As the NYT article illustrates the law and order pushback against change in the criminal justice system is pervasive.  It is active and aggressive at the Federal, State and Local level of law enforcement, elected officials and the judiciary.

New York Times 11.25.2019

As a new crop of district attorneys takes a different approach to criminal justice, some are seeing their authority removed and their actions blocked in court.

While Lamar Johnson has spent 24 years in a Missouri prison, evidence of his innocence has steadily mounted. Two other men who confessed to the murder attributed to Mr. Johnson said he did not do it. And the only eyewitness against him — without whom prosecutors said they had no case — later recanted.

This year, after his fruitless declarations of innocence from behind bars, prosecutors from the same office that sent him away for life in 1995 decided that he was innocent and asked a judge to grant him a new trial. The response was swift and not in Mr. Johnson’s favor: The Missouri attorney general weighed in, helping convince the judge to deny the request.

The pushback faced by prosecutors in Mr. Johnson’s case is not unique. Across the country, similar clashes are playing out as prosecutors who were elected in recent years promising a different approach to criminal justice have seen some of their efforts frustrated. Opponents with a more traditional view of law and order are taking concrete steps to try to block them in court and strip them of discretion or money to run their offices.

From the start, these prosecutors met fierce criticism from law enforcement and other elected officials when they promised to crack down on police misconduct, prosecute fewer nonviolent crimes and reverse potentially wrongful convictions.

This month, Chesa Boudin, a former public defender whose parents were sent to prison when he was just a year old for their roles in a deadly armored car robbery, eked out a narrow victory in San Francisco after pledging wide-ranging reforms. The city’s police union had spent more than $600,000 on ads opposing Mr. Boudin, declaring him the “#1 choice of criminals and gang members.”

For decades, district attorneys enjoyed almost unlimited discretion in how they could pursue cases. Most of them used that authority to send more and more defendants to prison, helping to drive the nation’s incarceration boom.

What is now at stake is the latitude of prosecutors to make decisions meant to slow, instead of accelerate, the pipeline to prison. Experts say more conflicts are sure to emerge between prosecutors elected in mid-to-large-size cities, where a new approach is popular, and state officials who answer to a wider electorate that does not favor such sweeping reforms.

“When D.A.s were ramping up, no one had a problem,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, an umbrella group of district attorneys seeking change. “Now we’re in a different moment, where some are trying to de-incarcerate, and some people invested in the status quo are trying to clip their wings.”

The pushback could have major implications, both for the role of prosecutors and individual cases. If the judge’s ruling in Mr. Johnson’s case in St. Louis is upheld on appeal, for example, it could make it almost impossible for prosecutors in Missouri to reopen similar cases in the future, no matter how persuasive the new evidence.

Critics of the new cohort of prosecutors, such as William P. Barr, the attorney general, say their efforts are demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety. In a speech in August, Mr. Barr criticized “district attorneys that style themselves as social justice reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the law.”