Building a Pipeline of Reform-Minded Prosecutors

by Sheila Bapat, Program Director, California Bar Foundation

California Bar Foundation has been excited to partner in the Meet Your DA event series here in California. Led by the ACLU of Northern California, this four-part event series is shining a light on the power of District Attorneys (DAs) and how prosecutors can be vehicles for social change. The final event in this series will take place in Los Angeles this week, on November 1. It has been a privilege to partner with the ACLU along with Smart Justice California and the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy to reach law students throughout the state with this message.

California Bar Foundation’s mission is to build a better justice system -- for all Californians. We believe that every Californian deserves access to justice, and that lawyers working in this system should be representative of the communities they serve. We fund legal aid fellowship opportunities and scholarships for diverse law students throughout California who are devoted to making social change. We also fund pipeline programs throughout California to empower high school, community college and college youth to consider careers in the law.

To truly build a better justice system, lawyers with power—including prosecutors—must be representative of, and seek to work for, the people of California. Our strategy is to invest in a pipeline of diverse law students who will one day become leaders of our profession.

Why do we focus on supporting diverse law students? California is a majority-minority state. While Latinos and African-Americans make up 38.8 percent and 6.5 percent of California’s population respectively, they make up 42 percent and 29 percent  of California's incarcerated population, respectively.  Nearly two-thirds of men incarcerated in California are black or brown.

The legal profession can help change this. A very small percentage of California lawyers are black or brown and people of color as a whole make up just 20 percent of the state’s lawyers.  A study by Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center found that in 52 of the 58 California counties, 70 percent of prosecutors are white.  And while 40 percent of California’s population is Latino, only 9 percent of prosecutors are Latino. Nationwide, the numbers are worse. According to a report by the Women Donors Network, 95 percent of all elected prosecutors in the United States are white.

Diversity is important for creating a better justice system -- it is not just for the sake of diversity. As the Stanford Criminal Justice Center has noted, “prosecutors are more likely to charge black defendants than white defendants with offenses carrying stiff mandatory minimum sentences, and more likely to charge black defendants than white defendants under laws providing longer sentences for habitual offenders.”

Right now, law students of color are generally not inclined to be prosecutors. Many seek to be a public defender or some other form of justice advocate, and we are committed to continuing to build a pipeline for these critical areas as well.

But we also need to ensure we have diverse, reform-minded law students who want to be prosecutors, too. Given the level of discretion prosecutors have, criminal justice reform efforts need reform-minded prosecutors in order to succeed. As Adam Foss has noted, “The unfairness of it all made me want to be a public defender. The power dynamic made me want to be a prosecutor.”

For all of these reasons, we are now building a pipeline of reform-minded prosecutors of the future.

Once the Meet Your DA event series wraps up, our work will just be beginning. We will partner with diversity pipeline programs throughout the state -- programs that empower high school, community college and college youth to consider careers in the law -- to provide exposure to reform minded prosecutors.

We will continue organizing webinars and events for law students to gain exposure to reform-minded prosecutors in collaboration with the many terrific organizations in California doing this work.

Finally, we will be providing paid fellowship opportunities for law students and recent graduates who are committed to being reform-minded prosecutors in California.

We are excited to partner with ACS and so many other groups in this critical pipeline work to ensure that prosecutors of the future are committed to criminal justice reform.