When State’s Attorney of Baltimore Marilyn Mosby came into office in 2015, she immediately tried to use her power to address wrongful convictions and implement other criminal justice reforms.
She was met with more than just criticism of her agenda or her competency, she said. Her home and family were also attacked.
“They protested outside my house, published my children’s pictures online, including my address,” Mosby said. “When it comes to the types of attacks against black women, the type of venom is very personal.”
Mosby was among six African-American women reform prosecutors from around the country who gathered at a panel discussion at Harris-Stowe State University on Tuesday, January 14 to talk about the criminal justice reforms they have implemented.
They also openly talked about receiving death threats, lawsuits and pushback from legislators.
“A public official said I should be lynched on Facebook,” said State’s Attorney Aramis Ayala, Orange and Osceola County in Florida. “This is the stuff that we have to endure that is much different than any white female, any white male, any black male. The camaraderie, the sisterhood that you see (referring to the panel) is because the level of strength and the level of attack is higher.”
The panel included District Attorney Rachael Rollins of the Boston area, District Attorney Diana Becton of Contra Costa County, California; State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy of Prince George’s County, Maryland; Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales of Portsmouth, Virginia; Mosby and Ayala.
Earlier in the day, the prosecutors rallied in support of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner at the Carnahan Courthouse, along with the NAACP and other civil rights activists.
“We all stand here, arm-in-arm, ready to fight for change with the urgency that it requires and demands,” Rollins said at the rally. “When people that look like me demand change, they call us radicals. When we point out that institutional racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, they call us angry, desperate or frantic. But we are not deterred.”
Gardner gave the closing remarks at the Harris-Stowe panel, saying that having her “sister warriors” come to St. Louis to support her “choked me up.”
“We’re fighting for equality in the criminal justice system,” Gardner said to the full-house audience at Harris Stowe, “fighting for young people who are dying in our respective communities — though people want to use them as examples of how we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Although black reform female prosecutors face “unthinkable challenges, unthinkable attacks,” Gardner said that they are not victims.
“We’re saying, ‘No longer are we going to sit here and let the powerful get together and choose to take out the people’s voice,’” Gardner said. “We stand together. This is not just about criminal justice reform. This is a new civil rights movement.”
The event comes on the heels of Gardner filing a 33-page federal civil rights lawsuit through the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act against city officials, police and Special Prosecutor Gerard Carmody. The lawsuit alleges that Gardner’s attempts to address St. Louis’ long history of racial inequality and prejudice in the criminal justice system have been met with a “broad campaign of collusive conduct” from the police union, city officials and Carmody to get her out of office before she can implement her progressive agenda.
The mayor’s office “vehemently” disagreed with the claims, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association called the suit “the last act of a desperate woman.” Carmody did not return the St. Louis American’s phone call.
The coalition of black women prosecutors is supportive of Gardner’s lawsuit, said Jamila Hodge, director of Vera Institute of Justice’s prosecutor reform program.
“Every woman was excited to see one of their own go on the offense,” Hodge said. “They are constantly on the defense responding to attacks. This is really the first time that it’s an offensive action to say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong, it’s racist and we don’t have to stand for it.’ This is history, and I do think everyone is watching.”
Mosby explained that 95 percent of the country's elected prosecutors are white, and only 1 percent are women of color. The panel audience gave roaring applause to the expressions of the prosecutors’ programs and ideas. Many of the prosecutors have led cases to hold police accountable for using excessive force, which received national attention.
Becton has focused heavily on the removal of old felony convictions, which have prevented residents from obtaining decent housing, jobs and education for many years. This week, her partner Code for America helped deliver over 3,200 old convictions to the court, she said. Morales said her team goes into jails to reach the “people who have just made mistakes” and help them from reoffending by getting them housing, food and job opportunities.
Braveboy believes African Americans are over-sentenced, and she has started a sentencing integrity unit in her office.
“People are different when they are 16 to when they’re 40,” Braveboy said.
On Dec. 18, a 16-year-old who was sentenced to life was released after serving 29 years in prison, Braveboy said. She has also moved to stop cash bail and implement diversion programs to help the youth make better choices.
“You wanted us to make these changes, that’s why,” Braveboy said.
One of the loudest moments of applause came after a comment made by Rollins.
“Many of the people who have problems with progressive prosecutors are not elected,” Rollins said. “Police are not elected. The police chief is appointed by the mayor. When you have a problem with your police department, vote for a new mayor.”