Kenneth Thompson Lecture panelists discuss how prosecutors can bring change to the criminal justice system

On March 14, the fifth annual Kenneth P. Thompson ’92 Lecture on Race and Criminal Justice Reform brought together two former public defenders, Chesa Boudin, now executive director of the Criminal Law and Justice Center at Berkeley Law School, and Tiffany Cabán, New York City Councilmember for District 22, to discuss their experiences in public service and their hopes for the future of criminal justice reform. In particular, the panelists considered the role that progressive prosecutors can play in reducing the harms of mass incarceration.

The event honors the legacy of Kenneth Thompson ’92, Brooklyn’s first Black district attorney, who passed away in 2016. It was co-hosted by the Peter L. Zimroth Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law (CRIL). The conversation was moderated by another former public defender, Assistant Professor of Clinical Law Vincent Southerland, who also serves as CRIL’s director.

In 2019, both Boudin and Cabán were working as public defenders when they separately ran for open district attorney seats—Boudin in San Francisco, California, and Cabán in Queens County, New York. Both candidates ran on progressive prosecution platforms: they advocated that the district attorney’s office could be used to reform the criminal justice system, through measures including changing how violent crimes are adjudicated, who is eligible for bail, and which convictions are pursued. Cabán lost by 55 votes, less than half of a percent of the total votes. Boudin won his race, but was recalled by voters in 2022 amid a backlash to his efforts to reduce incarceration rates.

In their discussion, Boudin and Cabán shared why they were interested in serving as prosecutors. They also explored the potential of prosecutors’ offices to reform the criminal justice system and the importance of working across ideological divides to bring about reform that makes communities safer.

Watch video of their discussion:

Selected remarks from the event:

Chesa Boudin: “When you visit prisons or jails in this country, you cannot walk away thinking that the system is solving any of our problems or vindicating the rights of any people whose rights need to be vindicated. It’s not doing anything—that we can agree, whatever our politics. It’s not rehabilitating people, it’s not effectively deterring crime. It is not honoring or dignifying or healing victims who have been harmed by crime. And it is certainly not allowing our local communities—like the kind that Tiffany represents—to have the resources they need to build meaningful public safety. In fact, it’s bankrupting our local governments and starving them of resources that could invest in things like healthcare and childcare.” (Video 14:21)

Tiffany Cabán: “People can agree that the status quo isn’t working, but a lot of people can’t fully ideate what those solutions are…. Maybe they’re directly impacted and are constantly in crisis, and so that is a huge ask to ask of people who are just using so much of their capacity to survive. And then people who just are disconnected because they have the privilege of not being directly impacted… I feel like a lot of the challenge [is] sort of facilitating these connections.” (Video, 36:51)

Posted April 2, 2024.