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Prosecutors Are Uniquely Positioned to Drive Criminal Justice Reform

This is a pivotal moment for criminal justice in America. For the first time in recent memory, issues like police tactics, racial disparities, and unnecessary incarceration are at the forefront of a robust national debate. An unlikely consensus has formed across the ideological spectrum -- and across the practice of criminal law -- challenging basic fundamentals about our justice policies and institutions, and demanding that the next generation of criminal justice thought leaders please stand up.

It's an important and long-overdue dialogue playing out just about everywhere these days -- from debate stages and town halls, to churches and family barbecues. For prosecutors, at the crux of all these conversations lies one profound, unanswered question:

How do we promote safety at the same time as fairness?

Today we are announcing the launch of a national prosecutorial think tank designed to answer that very question. The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) will seize upon this unique moment to reimagine the role of the prosecutor in a reformed, 21st-century justice system. A novel partnership between the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, IIP is funded by a $3 million grant from the District Attorney's Office, using asset forfeiture dollars secured through cases against international financial institutions for violating U.S. sanctions.

IIP will convene prosecutorial thought leaders and issue reports highlighting the very best in justice innovation -- policies which increase safety and fairness at the same time.

We will advance preventive crime fighting strategies like intelligence-driven prosecution, empowering prosecutors to more forcefully impact public safety while reducing unnecessary incarceration. We'll provide a platform for prosecutors to lead systemwide discussions on racial disparities, implicit bias, and rebuilding trust between law enforcement and communities.

IIP will help prosecutors become better advocates for youth, and for the mentally ill. We will work to expand pre-trial diversion programs -- because too many young men of color are still needlessly detained -- and inmate re-entry programs -- because it makes no sense to send someone to prison without a plan for them to succeed when they get out. We'll work to grow treatment and alternative dispositions for mentally ill defendants -- because nobody benefits when "frequent flyers" cycle through our jails and our justice system at large. And we'll provide state and local prosecutors with the tools and strategies they need to fight cybercrime -- because our nation's most pervasive criminal threat requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Prosecutors are uniquely situated in our legal system, and uniquely situated to drive the change that our citizens demand. In a civil case, the two parties suing each other are pure adversaries. Their lawyers are expected to -- and do -- use every available lever to represent their clients zealously within established ethical frameworks.

For prosecutors, it's different. Beyond the oath of zealous representation, prosecutors take a separate oath to do justice. Their "client" is not an individual, or even a person. It is fairness. Prosecutors are stewards of the integrity of the system, and must be held accountable as such.

To fulfill this solemn oath today requires new tools and new thinking. This unique moment demands that prosecutors expand what is working, and roll back what is not. It demands that we promulgate, experiment, and implement new ideas, and engage in probing self-examination with academic rigor and inquisitiveness. As a think tank housed within John Jay College, one of the nation's preeminent criminal justice research institutions, IIP is uniquely positioned to help prosecutors do just that.

This pivotal moment for criminal justice reform carries so much potential. Our investment in IIP is our bid to ensure that we don't let it pass us by.

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. is the Manhattan District Attorney. Jeremy Travis is the President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

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