Criminal prosecutors can protect the public and build up their communities, but they can also make the system more punitive and send many more people to prison and jail. Yet for all of their importance, many prosecutors, once elected, serve for multiple terms and often run unopposed.
On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talks to former prosecutor and public defender Whitney Tymas, who now helps lead the Safety and Justice political action committee. Since 2015, the PAC has helped swing most of the 16 liberal candidates it's backed in local elections nationwide.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WHITNEY TYMAS: I think that what I took away from an early point in my career was that prosecutors just had a lot of power. They can either use it for good or not.
DAVID HARRIS: Why do so many prosecutors hold office for so long with so little opposition?
TYMAS: Most prosecutors have been in office for many years. Most, over 90 percent, run unopposed. I think that the reason is that it's hard to run for office, and there's power in incumbency. And so many people who would seek office don't have the resources to do it. They don't have the support. And hopefully our work is helping to level the playing field.
HARRIS: How do you select which prosecutors to challenge?
TYMAS: We look for people to challenge who are not reflective of the goals of justice and public safety. We look for opportunities to replace prosecutors who are focused on increasing jail and prison populations at the expense of public safety or without advancing public safety. And so we're looking to replace those types of incumbents with challengers who care about keeping their community safe, but care just as much about doing it in a fair and equitable way.
HARRIS: Only left-leaning candidates?
TYMAS: So far all the candidates we've gotten behind have been Democrats, but that doesn't mean that we wouldn't support a Republican or an Independent if he or she embodied the the values that we believe in.
HARRIS: In your first set of three races, all the candidates that you backed won, then in 2016, you got into more than a dozen races and most of them you won. What's ahead for 2018?
TYMAS: I expect that 2018 is going to be a very busy and exciting year. We've got prosecutor races in over 1,100 jurisdictions around the country, and we intend to be active in as many of those as we can.
Criminal Injustice is a weekly podcast by 90.5 WESA. You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with PAC leader Whitney Tymas on this week’s episode of the Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcast app.