the Philadelphia Tribune By Adam Geer – Feb 21, 2021.
As a Black man, homicide prosecutor, and the director of diversity, equity & inclusion at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO), I have an unusual vantage point on this city’s public safety challenges.
Public safety for all is only possible when we demand and seek both justice and racial equity. A lack of trust in the fairness and legitimacy of our criminal justice system inhibits arrests, jeopardizes prosecutions and deepens divides in communities. To truly earn the trust of Philadelphians, many of whom have been subjected to the ills of systemic and institutionalized racism and policies, we must ensure that the prosecutors, support staff, and all personnel of the DAO reflect the diversity of our great city and share an understanding and appreciation of the impacts of the criminal legal system.
In Philadelphia, the criminal legal system disproportionately affects Black and brown people. We are more likely to be the victims of violent crime (who deserve justice) and more likely to be defendants (who deserve dignity and a fair criminal process). A prosecutor who has personal experience being racially profiled, or whose community has been decimated by policies like mass incarceration, brings a valuable perspective and thoughtfulness about how cases ought to proceed and the impacts of prosecutorial decision-making and policies.
Historically, too few decision-makers in the criminal legal system—whether through sheer luck or privilege—have been personally affected by the incarceration of a loved one, or experienced outright prejudice, hostility and unfair treatment based simply on the color of their skin. The introspection that Black and brown people often possess is vital to an empathetic and fair justice system that seeks to protect all communities.
But creating and maintaining a prosecutor’s office whose staff are representative of the city we serve is challenging.
Being a Black prosecutor can be emotionally and spiritually draining. I experience vicarious trauma in nearly every aspect of the job—whether when reviewing videos of mostly young Black men in the last moments of their lives, comforting their grief-stricken mothers, and seeing the defendants (who look like me) shackled and sentenced, at my request, to sometimes decades in prison.
This is our albatross. Yet it’s a burden that we accept because the alternative —a prosecutor’s office without Black and brown prosecutors—is intrinsically unfair and tarnishes the credibility of our justice system.
There are other reasons for our low numbers. Just about every Black person and person of color in this office is here because they believe in our mission of fair and evenhanded justice for all. But many of us also take a lot of heat from family and friends for joining a prosecutor’s office. Given the deep history of our mistreatment at the hands of the American criminal justice system, their mistrust is not unfounded.
This presents an additional challenge for our recruiters: we are competing with private law firms that will pay new attorneys starting salaries more than double what we can offer, and without the stress of this daily tension. Retention is equally problematic, as most Black and brown prosecutors, saddled with crippling student loan debt, often leave the office for more lucrative positions in private practice.
Given the stark racial disparities in law school admissions, bar examination results and firm recruiting, we should be proactive in our approach to these issues. That’s why my family founded The Sarita and Claire Wright Lucas Foundation, in memory of my late sister, herself a prosecutor, to attract women of color to the profession. To date, the foundation has awarded 11 scholarships to Black women who now serve as prosecutors in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
Since District Attorney Larry Krasner’s administration began in 2018, the proportion of new hire assistant district attorneys (ADAs) who are people of color has increased by 67% over the preceding two years. That includes a 50% increase in Black/African-American ADAs. Overall, the office has increased hiring for people of color by 33% over the same period, including a 26% increase in Black/African-American employees.
Krasner also created my position as director of diversity, equity & inclusion to specifically examine these issues both internally and in the community. Among other initiatives, the office conducted its own mandatory implicit bias training, partnered with the Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs to conduct an additional training, and reestablished many of the office’s affinity groups. We are finalizing a comprehensive anti-racism training series facilitated by an outside professional, to ensure these trainings are given the time, care and attention they demand.
We are clear-eyed about the work ahead of us. Just 14% of Philadelphia ADAs are Black/African American in a city that is roughly 41% Black. That’s better than most prosecutors’ offices, but not close to what the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection deserves from its criminal legal system.
Diversifying prosecutors’ offices is more than a civil rights issue. As an ADA, I know these efforts will ultimately make our city safer. As a Black man, I know these efforts will make me safer.
Adam Geer is Assistant District Attorney for Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.