In an attempt to bolster a series of criminal justice reforms, the American Civil Liberties Union is investing large resources and utilizing its organizational skills in local district attorney races this year, McClatchy DC Bureau reported on Tuesday.
The effort is being backed by millions in funding from billionaire Democratic donor George Soros.
The ACLU is planning voter education and outreach campaigns in district attorney races in numerous states. Although the group has not decided which races will be targeted, its goal is to focus on elections in big cities with large jail populations that feed the state prison system, ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice strategist Taylor Pendergrass told McClatchy.
Experts say that district attorneys hold a great degree of power over the way justice is dispersed, due to the great discretion they have about whether to charge and how severely to punish defendants.
"We're just recognizing how powerful district attorneys are in shaping criminal justice policies, both at the local level, but also at the statehouse," Pendergrass said. "The lobbying power of prosecutors is really a substantial force almost everywhere we want to see change made in the criminal justice system."
Since little attention is usually given to local, down-ballot races, an organized effort to stress to the public the vital role of the district attorney can be very effective.
The Daily Signal reported that Soros used a similar tactic in the 2016 election, contributing nearly $11 million to help 12 candidates running in local district attorney races, of which 10 defeated their Republican incumbents.
The goal now is to continue this trend out of a desire to end "zero tolerance" and "tough-on–crime" approaches which the ACLU and like-minded groups say have increased incarceration rates for mainly non-violent, minority offenders, according to McClatchy.
These philosophies, however, contradict the Trump administration's approach crime. Last May, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive to federal prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" when charging defendants.
This approach reversed a 2013 memo by former Attorney General Eric Holder to avoid mandatory minimum prison sentences for minor drug offenders.
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