Originally published in Townhall

by Pat Nolan

For the past decade, conservatives have been leading efforts to reform our failing criminal justice system at both the national level and in the states. Beginning in Texas in 2005, deep “red” states such as Georgia, Utah, Mississippi, and South Carolina have adopted reforms that reserve costly prison beds for people who are dangerous rather than those we are just mad at. Just last year, we worked closely with President Trump and a broad bipartisan in Congress to pass the First Step Act, the first significant reforms in over a decade.

Leaders of both parties recognized that our prisons are failing badly – currently, over 40% commit new crimes within three years of release. They joined together to pass the First Step Act to switch prisons away from merely warehousing prisoners to preparing inmates to be good neighbors after release. The aim is to cut crime and have the offenders become good parents, employees, and taxpayers.

Conservatives are working to improve our prisons, which are at the backend of the criminal justice system. There is another part of the justice system that needs improving: prosecutors’ offices, the front end of the criminal justice system. It is the prosecutors who decide what to charges to file against an accused. The same criminal act can have many different crimes alleged. The decision of which charge(s) to bring can have a large impact on the sentence imposed if convicted.

One recent example is the slew of new charges recently leveled against Lori Loughlin in the college admissions scandal. These new charges are not based on newly discovered actions but rather on the exact same previously alleged acts. The prosecutors merely want to increase the pressure on Loughlin to plead guilty because the new charges could substantially lengthen her potential sentence.

While Loughlin’s prosecutors are federal, local district attorneys prosecute the overwhelming majority of crimes. A new development is that outside money and resources are flowing into what were once quiet district attorney elections. The candidates fall into three categories.

The first is “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” prosecutors that seek the harshest sentences no matter the impact on the community. These prosecutors have filled prisons with people we are just mad at, rather than those we’re afraid of. This looks good for their conviction rate at election time, but it doesn’t make us safer, and it carries a heavy price for the taxpayers.

The second is the social justice warriors (backed by millions of dollars from George Soros), who view the prosecutor’s role as addressing poverty, racism, sexism, and income inequality. Public safety ranks below those priorities. Think Kim Foxx the State’s Attorney for Cook County (Chicago). Illinois. In case you don’t recognize her name, she cut the sweetheart deal with Jussie Smollett for his phony claim of being a victim in a racist attack.

The third group is conservatives who rank public safety as their highest priority, focusing on violent crimes. They also are stingy with taxpayers’ money in pursuing sentences that provide the most public safety for cost.

An excellent example of a conservative prosecutor is Loudoun County Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittmann, who is making a name for herself as a conservative criminal justice reformer. A veteran prosecutor who has taken on violent offenders and prosecuted sex crimes, Wittmann’s credentials are beyond reproach. But as chief deputy in the county prosecutor’s office, she has also begun the process of reforming Loudoun’s justice system. Over the past few years, Wittman has worked quietly to:

  • ​Establish a partnership with the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative to divert low-level juvenile offenders from entering the criminal justice system. Doing so gives non-violent juveniles an opportunity to learn from their mistakes without having a criminal record for life.
  • Seek cash bail only for arrestees who threaten public safety. When non-violent offenders are jailed because they can’t afford a cash bond, they often lose their jobs and put unnecessary pressure on their families. By limiting cash bail to those who are charged with violent offenses or flight risks doesn’t compromise public safety. But it does help Loudoun families.
  • Reinstate drug courts and create mental health courts so that Loudoun’s jails are no longer used as very expensive mental health facilities.

These and other reforms make better use of taxpayer dollars so that our courts aren’t clogged, our jails aren’t filled, and our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to keep us safe. But there’s more work to be done, particularly in charging decisions, discovery laws, and sentencing.

Nicole Wittman is now running for election for the vacant office of Loudoun’s Commonwealth Attorney. She is being opposed by a Soros-funded social justice warrior, giving the public a clear choice. It will be a fascinating race to watch, and folks across the country will be paying attention.

Pat Nolan is the Director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice.