Prosecutors Have No Place in Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commissions

As abolitionist organizers on the ground in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, we are appalled and angered by the announcement by three district attorneys (DAs) — in partnership with Shaun King’s “Grassroots Law Project” — to pilot “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commissions” (TJRC) in our cities. These commissions, according to the announcement, will hold hearings on state violence committed in these cities in the hopes of moving toward community healing. Yet placing district attorneys — those leading offices that helped to imprison large swaths of people in those cities — at the head of these TJRCs ensures that they will fail to produce the change which harmed parties seek.

The racism and violence of law enforcement demands a community-led quest for reparations, not a prosecutor-led quest for reconciliation. The model of truth and reconciliation is fundamentally opposed to prosecution at its root — it is an entirely different notion of justice. And we take issue with these DAs modeling their TJRC after South Africa’s, where some (but not all) people addressed harms done to them under apartheid in front of a tribunal. While the process aimed to heal apartheid’s violence to enable South Africa to move forward, police violence, among other inequities, persists today and is still distributed on the basis of race. In short, the South African TJRC did not transform the root causes of harm (and, in many cases, it did not provide the optimal compensation for victims, leading some to form a People’s Tribunal). It is not a model that we should even be trying to replicate, and certainly not with law enforcement in control.

As we and our partners have articulated countless times elsewhere, DAs are top cops: Police hand DAs the baton after an arrest so that the DA can continue enacting state violence on the person who was arrested, from charging to sentencing. The police are the DAs’ star witnesses in their grand juries and trials; they are the anchor of their credibility in court. DAs shield police from scrutiny and they insulate police from consequences. Further, prosecuting offices sanction racist policing by prosecuting criminal cases that disproportionately target Black and Brown people, by appealing cases to make law that expands the power and scope of policing, and by litigating in ways that restrict or undermine the rights of people who are criminalized. The fundamental role of the prosecuting office is to collaborate with police to take cases from arrest to sentencing, to send people to and keep people in jail and prison, to break up families, to cut off sources of stability, and to erect permanent barriers to health, housing, education and employment.

Prosecutors — yes, even these self-proclaimed “progressive prosecutors” — cannot lead a process to reckon with the racism and violence of law enforcement. Prosecuting the police will not end the violence of policing. Abolishing the police, the prosecuting office and all other tentacles of the prison-industrial complex are the only things that will.

While the elected DAs in Boston (Rachael Rollins), Philadelphia (Larry Krasner) and San Francisco (Chesa Boudin) speak publicly about their commitments to fight racism, their office policies and records of prosecutions and appeals belie an unfortunate truth: As prosecutors, their job in the criminal punishment system is to disproportionately punish Black and Brown people, contributing to generational trauma in those communities. Just like all other DAs, Krasner, Boudin and Rollins disproportionately prosecute Black and Brown people; they coerce pleas; they work with police to rob people of their property; they fight the disclosure of racist policing data; they disproportionately seek unattainable bail and pretrial detention against Black and Brown people; they expand the surveillance state; they use racist gang databases in their cities to enhance prosecutions and partner with federal prosecutors in gang sweeps that target young Black and Brown men; they prosecute noncitizens and place them at risk for removal and separation from their families; they seek to expand their budgets and suck up even more state and nonprofit resources to continue enacting state harm, at the expense of funding what people need to thrive. Even their adopted reforms reinforce damaging narratives about “safety” and may enhance the power of the system while doubling down on its racism.

Finally, we must note that the timing of the call for Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commissions led by prosecutors comes at the very time that increasing numbers of people are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex (which includes prosecutors). People are taking to the streets demanding the defunding of the police, not a DA-led TJRC. Holding a TJRC will, ultimately, legitimize the prosecuting office and, by extension, the prison-industrial complex, as the only means for holding people accountable and producing safety. If these so-called “progressive” prosecutors were truly on the side of the people, they would: first, cease the harms they bring to people every day (by bringing charges, among other things); and second, work toward the dismantling of the police and shrinking their own offices, not improving their own PR.

We are part of a legacy of abolitionist organizers who, for decades, have been working to end all forms of criminalization, incarceration and surveillance, as well as build alternative community-based models for addressing, repairing and transforming harm. We have been fighting for investments in the resources that keep our people and communities safe: housing, health care, jobs with living wages, access to healthy food and water. We don’t need any regular old DAs, and we don’t need any progressive DAs. We don’t need any more resources routed through prosecuting or policing offices, or through other carceral, punitive, or coercive state or nonprofit agencies. We need resources directly distributed to our communities so that our communities can create safety outside the same state that targets us.