Trials and Error

“I’ve Read The New Jim Crow … ”

How to tell if a prosecutor is only pretending to be a criminal justice reformer.

In the past few years, a new breed of district attorney has risen to power. In places like Chicago, Orlando, and St. Louis, prosecutors have committed to making the American criminal justice system less punitive and more humane. In many other locales, elected prosecutors have sensed the change in tides and adapted their message even as they’ve refused to scrap their outdated methods. These district attorneys talk about reform and perhaps make incremental changes, but they vehemently resist anything resembling a true overhaul of a broken system.

Take Hillar Moore III, the district attorney of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. A 2013 story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune portrays Moore posing next to a dog-eared copy of Smart on Crime by Kamala Harris and name-checking reformer touchstones such as The New Jim Crow and Don’t Shoot. Moore, a Democrat, has also appeared on panels for progressive organizations such as the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York, where he was asked to discuss his gang prevention program. The district attorney was even invited to the Obama White House to take part in a roundtable discussion about innovations in prosecution.

Hillar Moore
Baton Rouge D.A. Hillar Moore

Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office

The East Baton Rouge DA believes his reformer philosophy sets him apart in Louisiana, the state with America’s worst track record for mass incarceration. “I believe I am a progressive DA,” he told me last week. “I’m not proud that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.” During a recent public forum on police shootings, titled Louisiana After Ferguson, he talked about the need to restore the legitimacy of law enforcement, emphasizing the importance of listening to both sides and nodding when someone in the audience suggested more “positivity.”

As more and more people call for criminal justice reform, Moore’s vaguely progressive rhetoric helps him win elections and brings him national attention. But the image of Moore as a reasonable scholar of criminology is far from accurate. In his eight-year tenure as an elected prosecutor, Moore has consistently taken positions that would increase the overcrowding of Louisiana’s prisons and would oppress those who can least afford it.

East Baton Rouge’s incarceration rate is higher than the state’s rate, which is higher than America’s rate, which is higher than the world’s rate. While other jurisdictions have reduced punishments for misdemeanor crimes, Moore seems to think that not enough people are in prison. Take his 2015 idea to open “misdemeanor jails,” temporary holding facilities that would house about 100,000 people with unpaid misdemeanor warrants. Sixty percent of these warrants, the Advocate reported, were for traffic tickets. The proposed space for this jail was in a basement with no kitchen. Inmates were going to be fed from a McDonald’s down the road.

Baton Rouge leaders voted down this idea, questioning its morality, calling it “obscene,” “loan sharking, “backwards,” and an “embarrassment.” Black leaders, citing Ferguson, explained how it would generate untenable social costs. Moore ignored these issues, claiming instead that the temporary jail would “encourage” people to show up to court.

Moore has also supported increasing fees for indigent defendants, a category that encompasses about 85 percent of criminal defendants in Louisiana. In a state where people can wait years to see a public defender—these delays are the subject of a class-action lawsuit—the East Baton Rouge DA wanted to enforce collection of the statutory (but often not collectable) $40 fee for public defenders. And in a city where the police made national news after shooting and killing Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man, Moore has fought against police accountability, saying he’s “not a big fan of police cameras. … Why not put them on the public defender?

Today, Moore is one of the chief opponents of a new set of criminal justice reforms put forward by a state task force and supported by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. Moore and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, a lobbying organization of which Moore is the past president, oppose almost every single measure in a package of proposals designed to decrease the state’s prison population and reduce Louisiana’s $625 million annual prison budget.

Moore, for instance, has challenged the task force’s finding—based on data provided by Pew—that 86 percent of people in Louisiana prisons were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. “That’s nonsense,” he said recently. “In my opinion, you have to work extremely hard to go to prison.” When I asked last week where the data was to support his claim that the task force was incorrect, he said he didn’t have it. Moore did say that, in his view, if someone had a prior violent charge or if a DA had considered charging him or her for a violent felony, that defendant could not be considered nonviolent. He acknowledged that his views on who is rightly considered a violent criminal are, shall we say, nonstandard.

Another major provision of the task force recommendations would give the judiciary more power to make sentencing decisions, including allowing some people to remain outside of prison under supervised probation or parole. Many states, including Mississippi and Texas, have similar provisions. But Moore, along with other district attorneys, opposes this idea. On a radio show, he said, “Most of the folks that plead guilty and go to jail, they are there because they pled guilty.”

Moore is one of a long line of prosecutors who came into office talking about changing the system but who quickly resorted to tough-on-crime policies to consolidate their power and prey upon the fears of the public. In recent years, the failure to align promises and policy has cost some of these false prophet prosecutors their jobs. Chicago’s Anita Alvarez, who considered herself a “progressive” prosecutor, was voted out in large part for being too complacent about police violence. Seth Williams, the district attorney of Philadelphia, purported to be a reformer even as he lobbied for the death penalty and became embroiled in a bribery scandal. And Tim McGinty, who held office in Cleveland from 2013 to 2016, was unseated in a primary when his reformist talk failed to line up with his actions.

All of these prosecutors did what Moore is currently doing: spouting off kinder, gentler rhetoric while doling out harsher and harsher punishments. If Hillar Moore wants to keep his job when election time comes three years from now, he needs to show Louisiana he can do more than just say the right thing.