Before last week’s election, I was feeling the thrill of possibility, hedged with a dose of caution. Multiple disappointments do that to a girl.
So on Election Day, I had a just-in-case conversation with Joia Erin Thornton, national policy strategist for the Southern Center for Human Rights and the former court watch curator for Just City.
I wanted to talk to her ahead of the vote and get her take on what might be possible if Steve Mulroy became the new district attorney in Shelby County.
I was immediately buoyed; Thornton spoke in a voice like her name. Her days in the court watch program, in which people sit in Shelby County courtrooms and observe how the system works in real time, gave her both perspective and hope.
She noted that more people are starting to question a nation that’s been “carceral thirsty.” More people are aware of the role of the prosecutor. This city, too, is at a place of reflection.
“It’s kind of like an all-eyes-on-Memphis because Memphis is now responding to that call of reshaping prosecution in America for prosecutors who want to curb mass incarceration and address racism,” she said. “We’re speaking those words now out loud. What Mulroy does, and why I support him and urge others to support him, is he directly wants to address that. He wants to talk about racism and not (heavily) prosecuting low-level and non-violent crimes with sentences that don’t match the crimes committed.”
She pointed out that in the 11 years under former DA Amy Weirich, the city has been on the list of the most dangerous. Cynicism says stick with the person you know. But “If you vote for someone different, it gives you the opportunity to look at things differently,” Thornton told me. “You get to ask more questions, you get to be more involved in the shaping process and Mulroy has presented and positioned himself in a way that says ‘Hey, I’m open to your suggestions.’”
In some headlines, Mulroy was labeled a “progressive” prosecutor; there’s no sin or shame in that but we have to acknowledge that label rests on a spectrum. Mulroy, for instance, says he wants more funding for police officers and more police officers. I asked Thornton about that language and she had a different term: responsible prosecution.
“We need a prosecutor that understands proportional punishment and building bridges between the judicial sector and grassroots communities,” she said. “We don’t need a prosecutor that talks fear mongering or erroneous data or data that is surface to make people fear their neighbors and fear their communities.
“For me, it’s always what does a responsible prosecutor look like and how can he serve both the victims and also really transform and rehabilitate those who offend? Balance, not just crime and lots and lots of punishment. Because excessive sentencing shouldn’t always be the way we go to protect the community or have a perception that we’re protecting the community.”
As a reformer and abolitionist, Thornton considers bail reform — an idea Mulroy campaigned on — “low hanging fruit,” something that can be easily done but would have considerable impact. “If he addressed and really paid attention and leaned into bail reform, I believe that will be the difference of an individual within 48 hours or 72 hours maybe losing their job or access to their natural supports because they are incarcerated.”
In a broader way, she hopes Mulroy will begin a kind of participatory prosecution, a counterpart to participatory defense, a community-centered model for people facing charges. It’s an approach that brings in multiple voices to help create a broader picture of those who’ve done harm and allows for more questions and different kinds of solutions. A grandmother assaulted by her grandson, for example, might not want him in jail for a decade; instead, Thornton said, she might want him to get the resources he needs to be a more viable family member.
We don’t know what Steve Mulroy will do in his eight years as DA. We only know what he’s promised. And we know he’s one person and he has to work within a system and that’s not easy going.
But Thornton said two other things I loved. The first:
“There is a collective consciousness growing in Memphis. Many people like to paint Memphis as kind of like a factory-generated town, like you feed them something to believe and they’ll believe it for 25 years. But there is a consciousness growing in Memphis that is intergenerational, where more folks are having conversations about what’s going on in their name, when it comes to executions, when it comes to prosecution and even education.
“More folks are starting to demand and ask questions and it’s not one lone wolf standing in the middle of the street. It’s at least 25,” she added with a laugh.
And she pointed out, we have Mulroy on record. “Even if … he flips, we have him on record and we can call him out for some of the things that he’s done.”
So I remain where I was emotionally. Thrilled at what can be, yet cautious. MLK50 is ready to hold our new district attorney accountable for the promises he made.
Our work, this community’s work, has just begun.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at email@example.com