Educating the community on mass incarceration is a critical component of instituting sustainable criminal justice reform. As part of a site engagement, Vera helped St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner film this PSA explaining the need for reforms like her diversion program.

It’s time to redefine what it means to be a prosecutor. Prosecutors wield tremendous power in our criminal justice system. They have discretion over critical decisions in the life of a case, including charging, bail, plea bargaining, discovery, and sentencing. For too long, prosecutors have exercised their discretion in ways that have contributed to mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Communities across the country are demanding they adopt a new approach. Prosecutors should pursue public safety through data-driven policies that reduce incarceration and ensure equal justice for all. They have the potential to reform the criminal justice system and to transform their role to focus on helping communities thrive.

Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program partners with reform-minded prosecutors across the country to redefine their roles within the system. Each component of the work is part of an effort to end mass incarceration, address racial disparities, and help prosecutors be more transparent and accountable to the communities they serve. Vera uses a data-driven approach to help prosecutors implement policy and practice reforms that align with these goals.

Data-driven change through site engagements

Reform-minded prosecutors have a daunting task on their hands. How do they deliver on campaign promises to reduce over-incarceration? How can they know that the reforms they champion will be the right ones? How will they effectively drive change through their offices so that reality meets rhetoric? And how will they show results and demonstrate accountability to the communities that elected them? Change requires a real transformation in culture, policy, and practice within an office, from the executive level down to line staff. One of the critical means of this transformation is using data to inform decision making and measure progress.

Vera partners with prosecutors’ offices in an intensive 12- to 18-month engagement to assess their practices, identify policy and practice reforms that are rooted in evidence, and work towards a shift in office culture. These engagements begin with quantitative and qualitative data gathering and analysis to understand what decisions are made—and how—at critical stages of cases. Next, Vera collaborates with the office to develop policy recommendations designed to reduce incarceration, promote racial equity, and increase transparency. We then help with policy implementation through training and workshops with line staff to help them understand the problem of mass incarceration and why these policy reforms are working to reverse it. Finally, we use data to measure the effectiveness of the policy reforms and provide the office with guidance to continually monitor and report out its progress.

Training on mass incarceration and the roots of racial injustice in our criminal justice system

Getting line staff to buy-in can be one of the biggest obstacles facing reform-minded prosecutors. In response to this challenge, we developed a two-hour training to explain the negative impact that mass incarceration has had on individuals, families, and communities, and to show how prosecutors can drive change. The training makes a simple but essential argument: mass incarceration is a problem and prosecutors have the power to change it. It begins by introducing mass incarceration as a national phenomenon that operates locally. We then expose the problems of mass incarceration, including its origins in slavery and its ongoing racially disparate impact, explain the impact of mass incarceration on individuals and communities, and provide examples of reforms implemented by prosecutors’ offices around the country. By the end of the training, line staff should have a shared understanding of the problem of mass incarceration and the need for policy reforms within their office.

Data analysis of racial disparities at key decision points in the life of a case

A racial disparity analysis measures differences in decisions at each of the key points of a case based on the race of the individual accused. Using data from an office’s case management system, we examine decisions at charging, bail recommendations, plea offers, and sentencing recommendations. We aim to show how decisions made in the justice system, including the prosecutors’ office, affect people—and communities— of different races differently, causing greater harm to some than to others. The prosecutors’ office can then use the information to pursue reforms that will reduce disparities and track progress.

Case studies on strategies for implementation of policy and practice reforms

We also conduct case studies to examine how offices with reform-minded prosecutors have rolled out substantial policy and practice reform efforts. Through surveys, interviews, and focus groups with staff at all levels, we research how reforms were designed, prioritized, communicated internally and externally, and ultimately implemented. For larger offices, we work with leadership to determine a specific division of focus for the case study. Anticipated engagement is three to four months, including site visits to meet with staff. At the conclusion of the case study, we provide office leadership with a findings memo about lessons learned from the implementation of past reforms in order to inform future initiatives the office pursues.