What Is It?
A district attorney (DA) is the top lawyer in a county or judicial district. DAs prosecute crimes that break state law. Their job is to represent the public in criminal trials. This includes:
- deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against someone who has been arrested.
- presenting evidence to a judge or jury to determine whether a person is guilty of a crime.
They supervise an office full of attorneys who help them get their job done.
In some states, this person goes by a different name, like prosecuting attorney, county attorney, or state’s attorney.
Why It Matters to You
The DA prosecutes all kinds of crimes and can recommend a criminal sentence to a judge. Here are some examples:
- a person accused of domestic violence
- a person accused of having an illegal gun
- a repeat offender accused of homicide
- a police officer accused of misconduct
- a person who was arrested for possession of small amounts of drugs
- a politician accused of corruption
- a first-time offender accused of a nonviolent crime
- a child accused of crime
Just as the DA may decide to prosecute someone for a crime, they may also decide not to prosecute. For example, many DAs have said that they will not prosecute people for low-level offenses like shoplifting or possessing a small amount of drugs.
DAs also have a lot of influence when it comes to how long a prison sentence might be and whether a person who has been convicted of a crime will serve that sentence in jail or on probation. For example, DAs can often request that a teenager accused of a crime be tried as an adult rather than a child, which may result in more serious penalties. They can also negotiate plea deals. Sometimes DAs will recommend a particular sentence to a judge, although judges consider many factors when sentencing a person who has been convicted of a crime.
How to Make an Impact
In most states DAs are elected. They run campaigns just like someone running for city council or president. That means you can vote for or against them.
You can also get directly involved by supporting or opposing their campaigns. Nationwide, more than 80% of DAs run unopposed, meaning that no one runs against them in elections. Voter turnout in elections for DA is often very low – it’s not unusual for only 10 or 20% of eligible voters to cast ballots. That means you have a real opportunity to make a difference.
Who’s the Boss?
In a few states, the DA is appointed. That means they have a boss. If you want to see change from your local DA, reach out to the boss. It could be the governor or a state commission. Find out how it works in your state and then ask for a meeting to discuss.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. Check out these stories about citizens getting involved:
In Los Angeles County, California, voters elected a former police officer who ran on a platform of criminal justice reform as the new DA.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, a grassroots nonprofit believes the DA is putting residents in danger by failing to properly prosecute violent criminals and focusing on a progressive agenda. The group is actively working to remove the DA from office.
A group of people in Arizona sued the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, saying they had been unfairly targeted and prosecuted for protesting police brutality.
In Jackson City, Tennessee, a local activist partnered with a city court clerk to coordinate a parking lot of protests of about fifty-people against the district attorney in the aim of reforming the criminal justice system.
In Montague, Massachusetts, town meeting voters approved a town budget that increased police funding, in line with what the town’s police chief was asking for due to previous cuts.
In Multnomah County, Oregon, some residents have criticized the DA’s protest policy and public announcement of said policy for emboldening criminal acts and wrongdoings. The DA’s policy holds that low-level arrests at Portland protests will not be prosecuted.