Building Proximity & Empathy Through Experience

By John Choi

For prosecutors to truly be ministers of justice, it is incumbent upon us to fully understand the realities of both the front and back ends of the legal system and our role within it, so our decisions can be well-informed. For too long, prosecutors have taken the position that we have no control over what comes to our door nor what happens to people once we have secured their conviction, including the collateral consequences imposed by the legal system because of our actions. That can no longer be the case.

Prosecutors have not only a moral but also an ethical obligation to fully understand and acknowledge the role we play in the assembly line of justice, and we can only do so by fully understanding the roles of our system partners in law enforcement — peace officers on the front end and courts, corrections, and collateral consequences on the back end. To ensure this is the case, we have created an expectation for all our prosecutors to do three important things:

  1. Participate in a ride-along with law enforcement officers in our jurisdiction;

In light of this, it was easy for me to join more than 60 of my national colleagues in signing FJP and FAMM’s pledge to #VisitAPrison and incorporate these practices into our expectations of line prosecutors going forward. And it’s already beginning to pay off. Not only have these visits provided keen insight into the conditions of incarceration; the various resources available to people at different locations; and the long waiting lists for resources, such as parenting classes (a MN Department of Corrections survey revealed four of five incarcerated people expressed a desire for parenting education), but they have provided a window into the challenges and limitations associated with implementing their rehabilitative mission. And they have also proven to be transformational experiences for our team.

On a recent visit to a correctional facility, our staff members were literally moved to tears talking to a young person we had certified as an adult, hearing of his experiences, isolation, and need for additional services. This experience prompted us to connect with our state corrections commissioner, and we are now supporting some critical legislative fixes to improve services and decrease isolation for such young people.

When we visited our state women’s prison, we were able to meet with residents participating in a highly structured program aimed at building strength and skills, changing mindsets, and transforming lives, so they get the support they need to leave prison behind and never look back. The women we spoke with discussed how impactful the program had been for them, sharing how they’d developed leadership skills and new ways to respond when faced with adversity, built confidence in themselves, and learned strategies to redirect their own maladaptive thinking or behavior. One young woman said she truly believes having the opportunity to engage in this program saved her life and that without it, she would have gotten out and gone right back to her prior harmful behaviors.

By providing our staff opportunities to build proximity to the people most impacted by the decisions we make…we are humanizing the experiences of people subjected to the legal system.

While we know some people do benefit from the tightly controlled atmosphere and programming available in correctional facilities, we also know mass incarceration has disproportionately harmed communities of color, people from under-resourced communities, and those with mental health and/or substance use challenges. It has also created a second class of citizens, as Michelle Alexander keenly pointed out in The New Jim Crow, due to its unyielding collateral consequences. We know incarceration takes a toll on families’ emotional, physical, and financial relationships and health. We know children who have experienced parental incarceration are significantly more likely to experience other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), which are highly predictive of negative health, economic, and social outcomes in adulthood. And we also know incarceration doesn’t produce safety, as we’ve been led to believe, but, as Danielle Sered so wisely articulates, doubles down on the four key drivers of violence: shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs.

During my tenure as County Attorney in Ramsey County, Minnesota, which includes the capital city of Saint Paul and its surrounding suburbs, we have worked with community partners and system stakeholders to responsibly reduce our reliance on incarceration. Working together, we have reduced the number of people we send to state prisons by more than 50% from 2012 to 2019, with proportionate reductions across race, which have continued throughout the pandemic.

By providing our staff opportunities to build proximity to the people most impacted by the decisions we make, giving them a sense of not only the facilities they are sending people to and their programs, but what they really look and feel like, we are humanizing the experiences of people subjected to the legal system. By having staff do ride-alongs and tour correctional facilities, we are asking them to literally walk (or ride) a mile in their colleagues’ shoes, so they better understand the realities they face, day-in and day-out, and build relationships to foster systemic transformation. And by adopting a policy that requires our prosecutors to mitigate collateral consequences when appropriate, we are making sure the consequences we administer are fair, just, and proportionate and that we avoid inordinate and indefinite punishment.

Taking these key steps helps us ensure the decisions we make are more fully informed, that we truly live up to our duty as ministers of justice, and that prison is a last resort. If you are an elected leader and haven’t already taken the #VisitAPrison pledge, I strongly encourage you to join me and begin to understand the impact of our daily decisions on the safety and wellness of people and of the communities we serve.

John Choi has served as the Ramsey County (Saint Paul, Minn.) Attorney since 2011. He is the first Korean American chief prosecutor in the country.

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Fair and Just Prosecution

Fair and Just Prosecution is a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms.