Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

2020 will be remembered for many things: it’s the year we lost loved ones to a devastating pandemic and took to the streets to demand justice and change. We also have a chance to make it the year we stood up against a broken legal system and voted for judges and prosecutors who share our value of justice and fairness for all. 

The civil uprisings set off by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor constitute the largest protest movement in American history. And now, millions of Americans have a chance to take their demands for justice to the ballot box. That’s why we have to vote all the way down the ballot – like our rights and our lives depend on it. The stakes are unimaginably high – not only for state and national offices, but also for the everyday workings of the criminal justice system in communities across the state.

Judges and prosecutors are the most powerful players in criminal justice. They decide who gets jailed and who walks free. They decide whether you’ll be charged exorbitant fines and fees from the court, or whether you’ll languish behind bars simply because you couldn’t afford bail. Prosecutors decide whether police officers will be charged when they brutalize and murder the people they have sworn to serve; or whether innocent people will be bullied into pleading guilty. Many may not know the judges’ names, but their decisions – good or bad – have life-altering implications for the people and communities they serve. 

Judges and prosecutors have operated with relative impunity for far too long, pursuing an ineffective tough-on-crime approach that has devastated Black communities and failed to make us safer. Judges have helped to create two justice systems through their enforcement of the law: one where the wealthy, white, and well-connected are presumed innocent and another where people of color and those living in poverty receive harsh punishments for minor offenses. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. As members of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Arts & Business Justice Collaborative, we support reforms that will build a fairer and more just New Orleans. Restorative justice and diversion programs, along with ending reliance on wealth-based incarceration, can make our communities stronger and safer and save taxpayer money in the end. 

Reform-minded judges and prosecutors across the country are proving that treating people fairly is good policy and good politics. These progressive leaders are helping to break the country’s addiction to mass incarceration in favor of approaches that are both more humane and more effective than putting people behind bars. 

These reforms are overwhelmingly popular with Republicans and Democrats, alike. In a recent poll by the ACLU of Louisiana,  86 percent of New Orleans voters said reducing the number of people locked up in prisons and jails was important. Ninety-five percent of voters said they supported reducing racial disparities in convictions and sentences.

So, how do you find out where the candidates stand? Download a sample ballot and look for the judicial and District Attorney races. Research their records online or attend a virtual candidate forum. Ask whether they want to end the pressure to plead guilty, reform the bail system, and rein in fines and fees. 

In New Orleans, the People’s DA Coalition is working to ensure the next Orleans Parish DA embraces fairer, safer, more effective approaches to criminal justice. The ACLU of Louisiana has asked all the candidates for Orleans Parish DA to publicly commit to making sweeping, concrete reforms, such as not prosecuting marijuana possession, declining to pursue harsh sentences for low-level offenses, reducing the amount of time people spend in jail awaiting charge, and not prosecuting children as adults. The ACLU’s candidate dashboard includes the DA candidates’ responses as a resource for voters.  The PAC for Justice is working to elect judges who will end reliance on unaffordable bail; stop the routine detention of people for probation violations; and seek alternatives to incarceration. 

This year, justice is on the ballot. We have a responsibility to make our voices heard. Our vote is the most powerful tool we have to dismantle systemic racism in the legal system and build a more just and equitable future for all. 

About the authors: Jen Schnidman is the founder of Kickboard and the Co-Founder of the New Orleans Safety and Freedom Fund. And Adolfo Garcia is a chef and restaurateur with La Boca, High Hat and Ancora. They are members of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Arts & Business Justice Collaborative.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.