The criminal justice system isn’t simply a system corrupted by individual actors. The inequality is embedded in the apparatus itself.


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By Gyasi Lake

When reminiscing on her reign as California’s District Attorney and Attorney General, presidential candidate Kamala Harris referred to herself as a “progressive prosecutor” in her memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Though this falls in line with the blatant attempt by Harris and her team to rebrand her career in a Democratic presidential primary field that is shifting evermore leftward, review of her case records paints a very different picture.

The failings of the criminal justice system have helped elevate the term “progressive prosecutor” in spaces that claim a desire to address the US prison epidemic. With almost 2.3 million men, women and children in the clutches of the US carceral system, many activists are desperate for solutions, and these prosecutors hope they can offer a satisfactory one on their campaign trails to secure these votes.

But as “progressivism” infiltrates District Attorney’s offices around the country, the danger is that reformist policies are being dressed in radical clothing. These incremental changes are treated as if they are touchdowns when they are just moving the chains. This further thwarts any conversation shifting the direction towards the truly radical mission of prison abolition that we require.  

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Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner, a former civil rights lawyer who campaigned on a platform conscience of the bias within the criminal justice system, has garnered mass media attention for being among the nation’s leading “progressive prosecutors.” His immediate firing of a plethora of members in the Philadelphia DA’s office in order to move the department in a “new direction,” his role in drastically reducing the prison population by 30% in his first year as DA, and his ideology of steering away from prisons housing low-level offenders and seeking to lessen the surveillance of parolees were too ambitious to go unnoticed by the establishment, whom directly profits from the prison-industrial complex regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum. 

But Krasner came under fire on January 25th, 2019 when he appealed Judge Leon Tucker’s decision that allowed political prisoner and Former Black Panther member Mumia Abu-Jamal the right to reargue his case to the Philadelphia Supreme Court. Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner that occurred on December 9th, 1981, has been unfairly treated by the criminal justice system in his attempts to appeal the contested 1982 conviction. 

Krasner later stated that his decision to appeal the case was “a narrow, technical decision in one sense, but incredibly complex and nuanced and affects many other cases.” After months of fierce criticism from the same publications sand progressive organizations such as the the Democratic Socialists of America that had previously praised him, now arguing that he was working in alignment with police interests to the detriment of our communities, Krasner was forced to retract his initial support of the appeal.

Similar to Krasner, former NYC public defender Tiffany Caban has garnered mass media attention from progressive circles. A 31-year-old queer woman of Puerto Rican descent running for the District Attorney in the Queens borough, Caban is anchoring a citywide political movement that saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who along with other progressives figures/organizations like Cynthia Nixon, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Socialists of America and The Working Families Party has extended an endorsement to Caban.

Caban would like to emulate the success that Larry Krasner has experienced in Philadelphia and shares similar political messaging as he did on the campaign trial. Caban’s progressive platform consists of decriminalizing sex work, eliminating cash bails and the support of the No New Jails movement. The Jacobin, while reporting on her victory in the Queens DA race, published an article praising her as a “Socialist in the District Attorney’s office.

The “progressive prosecutor” moniker has also been extended to Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a former criminal defense attorney, and Steve Descano, a former federal consumer protection attorney, who won their DA races in northern Virginia countries (Arlington and Fairfax, respectively).

But simply advocating for No New Jails doesn’t challenge the false ideology that existing prisons and jails are necessary and provide rehabilitation for those deemed unlawful. Eliminating cash bails doesn’t guarantee the accused will never see a jail cell and thus fall victim to the mental, physical and psychological ailments that the experience induces. And while decriminalizing sex work lessens the further imprisonment of sex workers, it does not address sex workers who fall victim to the criminal justice system based on circumstances related to their profession that is still heavily reliant on their abuse.

Copious amounts of research has shown that prisons are incubators for serious illness and have profound implications on the psychological health of prisoners. Reducing the prison population, while noble, will still leave too many in these vulnerable positions that are inherent in a carceral system that is upheld by prosecutors and police. It is one thing to celebrate small victories toward the goal of total decarceration, and another not to have that goal in the first place.

RELATED: Why the plan to replace Rikers, or reform any prison, is doomed to perpetuate the problem

Even the most well-intentioned prosecutor must work with the police by design, and is thus always susceptible to falling victim to the pressure they can apply. Though Krasner eventually walked back his decision to appeal Abu-Jamal’s case, one can assume that if he wasn’t a high-profile activist whose case has been in the spotlight for decades and the progressive criticism hadn’t have been as ferocious, he would have charged ahead, as he likely will in other cases were such pressure can’t be applied.

The criminal justice system isn’t simply a system corrupted by individual actors. The inequality is embedded in the apparatus itself. Figures and organizations who praise this rising wave of “progressive prosecutors” legitimate an institution in which plunder is inherit. Legitimizing institutions that facilitate inequity also legitimizes the necessary oppression that the institution feeds upon.

Prison abolition requires us to turn our historically punitive view of criminal justice on its head and turn to restorative justice measures as forms of rehabilitation. While it would be foolish to expect such changes to take root overnight, the changes needed for such a transformation must be instilled in the policies and ideologies now. 

The idea of prosecution is not a viable option in a radical future, and so neither is a “progressive prosecutor.”

As the political climate has shifted toward a more open embrace of leftist politics, we must be wary of a Democratic party trying to co-opt the left political messaging to placate radical demands of transformation. The resistance doesn’t end with less explicitly punitive policies, but with the elimination of all forms of oppression. Divesting in the further expansion of the prison industrial complex is a start, but only if we acknowledge that it is far from the end. Prison reform cannot be conflated with prison abolition.

Gyasi Lake is a student at Buffalo State studying Sociology. He can be reached at @SekaniGyasi on Twitter