District attorneys (DAs) are the most influential people in the criminal legal system. They decide who gets charged with a crime and how criminal cases are resolved. This means these elected officials have the power to impact the lives of millions of people and entire communities.
Yet, they traditionally have very little oversight, transparency, or accountability, except every eight years when district attorneys are up for election.
Elections are the primary way for DAs to be held accountable. That’s when they answer you – the voter.
What is a district attorney?
A district attorney (DA) is an elected official who oversees the prosecution of criminal cases for their judicial district. Tennessee is divided into 31 judicial districts. DAs make charging decisions, influence bail, investigate allegations of police misconduct, impact legislation and more. A lack of public transparency means that prosecutors often work without any meaningful oversight or accountability to the public, except every eight years when district attorneys are up for election.
What do DAs have the power to influence?
Many DAs have the power to influence whether someone will have to pay bail, as well as the power to recommend pretrial release or to pursue alternatives to money bail.
DAs make bail recommendations to judges, but high bail costs often keep people in custody until their trial date, despite not being convicted of any crime. This causes major disruptions for the detained individual and their family, as well as increasing the likelihood that the individual will be convicted and sentenced.
Prosecutors decide whether or not to charge someone for a crime at all. Basic changes in charging decisions can reduce our reliance on incarceration and lead to healthier communities. DAs can influence charges in the following ways:
- Overcharging in order to get plea deals.
- Deciding if a defendant is offered diversion or not.
- Setting priorities on what kinds of charges they want to bring.
- Deciding whether or not to prioritize certain crimes for prosecution, like assisting someone with an abortion, or crimes associated with poverty, such as driving without a license or obstructing a sidewalk.
DAs have immense power to influence an individual’s decision about whether to enter into a plea deal or to take their case to trial. When a defendant accepts the sentence proposed by the DA, they enter a guilty plea, which the judge will typically accept. Approximately 90-95% of federal and state cases are resolved by plea. Prosecutor charging decisions and plea bargain offers are rarely challenged by judges.
Policy and Accountability
Although they do not make laws, DAs have used their influence with the legislature to introduce stiffer and harsher penalties. DAs often stand in opposition to meaningful reforms to the criminal legal system by encouraging lawmakers to oppose these reforms.
However, DAs in Tennessee are elected officials. And voters across the United States strongly prefer elected prosecutors who are committed to reducing incarceration, ending racial disparities, and being fully transparent.
If you believe in ending mass incarceration, so should your district attorney.
How do DAs Impact Tennessee Communities?
DAs’ power and influence affect specific communities in different ways.
LGBTQ People – In Tennessee, an analysis of 2019 hate crime data revealed that 12.2% of all hate crimes in the state that year were motivated by anti-LGBT bias. DAs make the final call on which cases to take on and which cases to leave behind, which survivors are taken seriously, and who gets access to justice. And DAs have the power to choose whether their offices will recognize and effectively respond to the needs of the LGBTQ community – whether they are victims, survivors, witnesses, defendants, attorneys, or staff.
People of Color – Tennessee’s state prison and jail populations are disproportionally Black. By overcharging and seeking harsher bail amounts and sentences for certain groups – often Black and Latinx people – DAs can contribute to racial disparities and the continued mass incarceration crisis in Tennessee.
Youth – Tennessee does not impose a minimum age for prosecuting children as adults for certain offenses, so it’s up to DAs to decide whether to keep children in the juvenile legal system or prosecute them in the adult system.
People Assisting Those Seeking Abortions – DAs make decisions daily about which cases to prioritize for prosecution. Tennessee’s trigger law goes into effect on August 25. This law bans abortion at fertilization, making abortion a Class C felony – which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. Tennessee’s DAs will decide whether or not to use their limited resources to prioritize prosecution of people who assist those seeking an abortion.
People with Mental Illnesses – After the police arrest someone, DAs determine whether to send people with mental illness and substance use disorders to prison and jail – which is guaranteed to make their symptoms worse – or to support the provision of more effective local services like rehabilitation and community mental health.
Rural Residents – Typically rural residents can face socioeconomic barriers such as higher rates of unemployment or underemployment, higher poverty rates, and disproportionate effects of the opioid epidemic. While urban incarceration rates have been declining, jail populations in rural counties have drastically increased. DAs influence the size of local jail populations and decide whether to prosecute crimes of addiction and poverty. They also influence who can access treatment and diversion programs.