Imagine that you are the chief prosecutor for a city where violent crime is flaring, with police and citizens begging for help to control criminals. Would your reaction be to stay at your post and come up with new policies to prevent crime, or would your city be better off if you instead spent your time convincing the American Bar Association to issue a set of directives urging prosecutors nationwide to lighten up on crime? Justin Bingham, the city prosecutor for Spokane, Washington, decided on the second path.
Spokane is a picturesque city of approximately 230,000 in the eastern part of Washington State. Bingham was elected as the city’s chief prosecutor in 2014, and he backed such proposals as retroactively vacating criminal convictions, downgrading drug crimes, and limiting the authority of police officers. The results haven’t been pretty. Recently, gang-related shootings have rocked the city. A defendant who had been arrested more than 200 times was let out of jail after getting caught on video breaking into a car and stealing items, leading a Spokane police spokesman to tell local news, “On a personal level, it certainly is frustrating.” In June, property crimes had risen by 30 percent compared with the year before. One Spokane resident stated bluntly, “We don’t want to be living here.”
Yet Bingham has focused on matters more important to him, if not to his constituents. In addition to being the city prosecutor for Spokane, Bingham serves as chairman of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section. In his introductory message on assuming role, Bingham complained about the “fundamental flaws” and “racial undertone of policy” that drive the criminal justice system, and pledged to do away with the horrors of “over-policing, . . . mandatory minimum sentencing and implicit bias.”
Bingham and the ABA were just warming up. In two resolutions, the ABA announced in August what it calls the “principles for ending mass incarceration and lengthy prison sentences” in the United States. The ABA demands that cities limit the use of pretrial detention, abolish mandatory minimum sentences, and adopt a “second look” policy that calls for every prisoner serving more than ten years imprisonment to be considered for release. In a press release, the ABA quotes Mark Schickman, a labor lawyer, and Rhodia Thomas, chair of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, as strongly supporting these measures. Apparently, no police officers or prosecutors were available to comment on the resolutions—nor were the citizens of Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or any of the other cities facing spikes in homicide and violence.
In his introductory message, Bingham asks a rhetorical question. “Shouldn’t I be in my office worrying about balancing my own budget and using my scarce resources to process the mound of cases that sit waiting for attention?” The answer is yes, of course. Meantime, the ABA should refocus its attention to setting professional standards for lawyers. Maybe everybody should just get back to work.