At every chapter in our history, new crises create new heroes. Right now, the two who are shining the brightest are District Attorney Fani Willis in Georgia and suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell in Florida.
These Black women prosecutors earned election to one of the toughest jobs in our justice system only to be targeted for removal by the far right, in what is turning into an all-out nationwide war on reform-minded prosecutors.
As the world now knows, Georgia’s Fani Willis had the courage to indict former President Trump and a raft of co-conspirators for their efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Even before the indictment, and with it clearly in mind, GOP officials in Georgia were advancing a bill to make it easier to can district attorneys like Willis. Having succeeded in passing the measure, now they want to turn its full force against her.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is crowing about removing prosecutors including Worrell. Worrell is a star; she won her seat with almost 66 percent of the vote and ran on an unapologetically progressive platform. She is refusing to be intimidated by DeSantis; she makes the case that her efforts to go after police corruption had a lot to do with why she was targeted. DeSantis suspended Worrell last month, accusing her of failing to prosecute defendants to the fullest extent of the law.
Willis and Worrell were chosen by voters who looked at their records and decided that these women embodied an approach to criminal justice that people wanted in their communities. The attempts to remove them don’t just undermine two individuals, they invalidate fair elections and silence the voices of Florida and Georgia voters.
That’s bad enough in principle, but the harm goes even deeper because citizens exercise an important right when they choose to give someone from their own community the authority to enforce the law. When those chosen are prevented from enforcing the law, the police and justice system risk becoming little more than an occupying army. It’s disturbing that Georgia legislators and DeSantis don’t get this.
But the worst thing about the growing attacks on prosecutors is that they trample on prosecutorial discretion, which is at the heart of our justice system.
Prosecutors are elected to make hard, critical decisions about which cases to pursue. They have to do that based on their experience of what makes communities safer. Reform-minded prosecutors have been running — and winning — on platforms that oppose racial bias in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline and the racist, classist institution of cash bail. They are declining to prosecute low-level offenses like cannabis possession.
Most recently, they are also refusing to use crime-fighting resources to criminalize people seeking abortion, which was recognized as a constitutionally protected right for 50 years. Scores of prosecutors have signed a pledge saying they will not do this.
In response, the far right has ramped up its attacks. Campaigns to oust individual prosecutors have been amplified by the introduction of more than two dozen bills in 16 states aimed at limiting the power of prosecutors. In addition to the new law in Georgia, bills have been signed into law in Tennessee and Texas.
Right-wing politicians will argue that they’re doing this to force prosecutors to be “tough on crime.” However, there is plenty of evidence to show that progressive criminal justice reforms don’t increase crime in general or violent crime in particular. Meanwhile, other statistics point to an alarming red state “murder gap” — evidence that for two decades the homicide rate has been higher in “tough-on-crime” red states.
These attacks are not about fighting crime. They’re about power. They’re about protecting entrenched interests. They are definitely about intimidating or removing reform-minded prosecutors and prosecutors of color. And they’re about nullifying the will of a younger, more diverse electorate.
At its most extreme, that impulse played out in a violent attempt to overthrow our entire democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. We can’t ignore the attacks on Willis, Worrell and others; we’ve been warned.