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The Power of your DA

Prosecutors have used their power to pack jails and prisons. And it has taken decades, billions of dollars, and thousands of laws to turn the United States into the largest incarcerator in the world. But did you know that prosecutors also have the power to dismantle this machine — even without changing a single law?

01.

Rarely Challenged in Elections

In Pennsylvania, turnout for elections to elect DAs can be as low as 9 percent. The 20 percent turnout for the 2017 municipal elections in Philadelphia was the highest turnout for a municipal election in decades. Nationwide, 84 percent of DAs run unopposed.

District attorneys are elected in Pennsylvania but rarely face electoral challengers.

DA elections in Pennsylvania are held during off-years from other state and federal elections, driving down turnout.

02.

Power of Charging

DAs can overcharge in order to get plea deals; they can decide if a defendant is offered diversion or not; they can set priorities on what kinds of charges they want to bring; and they can decide whether or not to prosecute certain crimes at all, like declining to prosecute low-level offenses.

District attorneys have the power to choose which charges are filed against an individual accused of a crime.

When the police arrest someone, the district attorney’s office has the power to prosecute those cases, divert the accused to a program or drug treatment, or dismiss the case altogether.

03.

Power to Determine Bail and Pretrial Detention

Whether as a result of the DA allowing police to make bail recommendations or making direct requests to assign cash bail, too many people are assigned cash bail in Pennsylvania and too many DAs rely on cash bail as a way to keep people in custody until their trial date.

Pretrial detention causes major disruptions for the detained individual and their families and increases the likelihood that the individual held will commit a future crime.

There are plenty of alternatives to cash bail to ensure appearance at trial. Text message and phone reminders, as well as unsecured monetary bail (in which an individual signs a legal contract promising to pay a cash bond if they fail to appear at court) have all been shown to be more effective tools to make sure people show up to court than is cash bail.

05.

Power to Influence Sentencing

During the sentencing phase of a trial, the judge’s decision-making is heavily influenced by the recommendations of the DA. Judges will typically rubber stamp whatever sentence DAs recommend.

Sentencing will determine the length of an individual’s period of incarceration.

District attorneys have the prosecutorial discretion to not pursue mandatory minimum sentencing.

Photo by: Edmund Fountain

Photo by: Molly Kaplan

06.

Power to Present Evidence

The difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict comes down to the evidence presented by the district attorney.

A number of Supreme Court decisions have reaffirmed the district attorney’s obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense during discovery.

Frequent violations of these laws, as well as a regular lack of transparency in DA officers, reinforce the need for their existence.

07.

Power to Influence Policy

District attorneys have significant political sway when legislators consider sentencing legislation such as mandatory minimums, mandatory life without parole, or the use of risk assessment instruments.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) operates as both a member association and as an organizational lobbyist that takes positions on a variety of policy matters relating to criminal justice.

As such, district attorneys in Pennsylvania wield enormous influence over state legislators on both sides of the aisle, affecting policy debates and legislative outcomes regarding the criminal justice system.

Photo by: Phuong Tran

Photo by: Kieth Lane

08.

Power of Civil Asset Forfeiture

In 2017, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly passed a bill aimed at reforming the commonwealth’s policies on civil asset forfeiture. The bill that was ultimately watered down at the urging of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, among others, and failed to deliver meaningful reform. Pennsylvania law enforcement, at the direction of DAs, still have plenty of discretion to seize property from people not convicted of a crime and keep the financial proceeds for their offices.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity, even without charging the property owner with a crime

While police are usually the ones seizing property because of a suspected connection to crime, it is the district attorney's office that decides whether to file a petition in court seeking forfeiture of the property. DAs decide what to forfeit (from houses and cars to very small amounts of cash), from whom, and under what circumstances.

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