Progressive prosecutors are fixing a broken system. Backlash against them is misguided.

Progressive prosecutors, including Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, are facing a backlash in several cities. Gascon’s counterpart in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, is even facing a recall election. And there’s an effort to recall Gascon as well – for doing exactly what he said he would do.

Let’s not pretend that our criminal justice system has not been badly broken for a long time. It may work satisfactorily for people with financial resources, but for everyone else, an encounter with law enforcement or a district attorney is potentially devastating.

Let’s also not pretend that there is legitimacy to the false choice between mass incarceration, with an indifference to innocence and criminal impunity, and the rise in violent crime that Americans have witnessed in recent years.

I understand concerns about crime

I understand the dangers of American streets. I came of age in New York when its own police department referred to it as “Fear City.”

Now I live in Los Angeles, and the dangers remain a deep concern to me. I don’t like having my car broken into more than a few times at work and at home. I don’t like hearing of neighbors being burglarized and friends getting assaulted.

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I didn’t appreciate being robbed in my classroom by gang members who followed students on campus, and it was no fun finding myself between students and armed aggressors at the edges of campus, on the streets and at a local park.

Even less appealing was being shot at with a group of student athletes, although fortunately none of us were hit.

Worst of all has been losing students to gang violence or trying to console students when they lose a parent or other loved ones to street crime and violence.

Brutality of economic and social injustice

So I understand the arguments made by those who say that more police, more arrests and more incarcerations will most benefit those who live in urban areas with high crime rates.

Crime and the threat of violence are traumatizing. They erode the quality of our lives. And it feels wrong that anyone should menace us. Locking those people away seems utterly logical.

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But those responsibility arguments absolve those of us who are privileged of any for the brutality of economic and social injustice, and they also deny the humanity of those who commit crimes.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, center, at his swearing in ceremony in 2020.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, center, at his swearing in ceremony in 2020.

I have seen too many of my students turn themselves around to believe in demonizing anyone. It is reasonable to shield ourselves from violent criminals, and it is reasonable to see their degeneration as partly our collective failure.

I have visited and corresponded with former students who turned their lives around in prison. They and their families may well have suffered from economic and racial injustices, but their only hope for a meaningful future was in taking responsibility for what they had done.

I have also taught young people who, without breaking the law, have found themselves caught up in the massive fishing net of the criminal justice system. It is a system compromised by political pressure to reduce crime rates, whatever the cost.

Innocent until proven guilty

It is a system in which professional and political ambitions can eclipse the spirit of equal justice, a system that too often compromises the principle of innocent until proven guilty.

This was explained to me by a defense lawyer representing a former student of mine who has, without being convicted of a crime, spent more than five years behind bars.

This young man’s mother and family have been bankrupted trying to seek justice and pay an attorney willing to believe in his innocence against prosecutors who seem intent on punishing him – with endless delays – for refusing to concede to a plea bargain that would incarcerate him until he’s more than 50 years old.

The charges were dropped three times and then refiled, for no apparent reason.

I’ve attended hearings at which prosecutors brought up their vacation schedules and a detective’s vacation to justify further delays.

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In the meantime, a man loses hope and what might have been the best years of his life waiting for his day in court. He also has been assaulted and threatened by other inmates, and he caught COVID-19 in an overcrowded jail. He also was moved to a jail so far away from where his mother lives that she must spend an entire day traveling to see him.

I do not know whether this former student is innocent, as he vehemently asserts, but unless he is found guilty, he is supposed to be an innocent man in the eyes of our legal system.

Justice system hurts innocent people

The system itself – overburdened, underfunded, cynical, political – harms innocent people who are poor, and too often ignores the crimes of the wealthy and powerful.

If I have a complaint against Gascon and other prosecutors, it is that they have not acted quickly and forcefully enough to end the abuses of the justice system.

Some are trying. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has used DNA to verify murder and rape convictions that occurred before the availability of such evidence. He has tried to make justice more possible for crime victims as well as for immigrants and other marginalized people caught up in the system.

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Kim Gardner, circuit attorney for St. Louis, has similar goals and, like Krasner, has met strong resistance. (Gardner is now facing a reprimand over claims she withheld evidence from the defense team for former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.)

But why is it controversial to want to free innocent people from prison? Every innocent person behind bars is suffering in place of a real criminal who may be free to do more harm.

If we are unwilling to right these wrongs – if we have fallen for the false notion that justice and mercy make us less safe – then we have not only a broken system; we are a broken people.

Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” ” and his new novel, “Light Man.” Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Criminal justice broken: Progressive prosecutors trying to fix system

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