Last week, George Brauchler, District Attorney for Colorado’s 18th Judicial District (located outside of Denver), stated on Twitter that “‘Mass incarceration’ is a myth. Individuals with their own attorneys were convicted and sentenced individually.” His statement reflects an ignorance of imprisonment statistics and undying support for his district’s penchant for draconian sentences during a time when the rest of the country is beginning to question prison terms that are longer than necessary for public safety.

Mass incarceration refers to the fact that the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, and 22% of the world’s prisoners. Starting in the 1980s, the American public, alarmed by rising crime rates, were told that superpredators and drugs were part of the problem. Legislators capitalized on this fear by introducing draconian laws. Until very recently, the idea of reducing penalty provisions in criminal statutes was perceived to be political suicide. Studies have found that “Mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, and truth in sentencing laws have contributed substantially the growing numbers of nonviolent offenders in prisons and jails.”

Yet the quadrupling of the prison population from 1980 to 2008 has not made us any safer. Commentators have noted that while “some level of incarceration had some positive impact on bringing down crime,” there have been diminishing returns since 1990 because of the over-imprisonment of more low-level or non-violent offenders. Even in the case of more serious crimes, it is well-documented that most offenders will eventually “age out of crime,” rendering excessively long prison sentences less effective than other data-driven options. Long periods of incarceration for a large prison population is extremely expensive. In Colorado, the total taxpayer cost of incarceration was $606 million for Fiscal Year 2010 alone. That figure does not take into account the large costs to families and communities. A 2005 study concluded that incarceration’s impact on the family is that it  “strains them financially, disrupts parental bonds, separates spouses, places severe stress on the remaining caregivers, leads to a loss of discipline in the household, and to feelings of shame, stigma, and anger.”

It makes sense that Brauchler would avoid talking about the downsides of mass incarceration–it is his office’s unofficial crime control policy. Colorado law provides four levels of habitual offender statutes, with the lowest being triggered when a person is “convicted of a class 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 felony…has twice previously been convicted of a felony.” Even the lowest enhancement leads to a sentence three times the maximum of the range for the felony class. Brauchler’s predecessor, Carol Chambers, was often criticized for her zealous pursuit of these enhancements. Brauchler has demonstrated a similar lack of restraint.

During a police chase, an intoxicated Ryan Stone hijacked three cars, damaged 10 cars, and reached speeds of 100mph. Brauchler charged Stone with attempted murder for hitting an officer, and with four habitual crime enhancements, among other crimes. Despite the jury rejecting the attempted murder charge, he was sentenced to 160 years in prison–a sentence that is excessive even in a very serious case such as this. In a drunk driving case, Garrett Neugebauer led police on a chase that ended in police shooting his wheels out. No one was physically injured. While the crime is indeed terrible, Neugebauer was sentenced to 24 years in prison and Brauchler boasted that Mr. Neugebauer “can’t drink and drive in prison.”

District Attorneys have a large amount of control over how people are ultimately sentenced due to their unfettered discretion in filing criminal charges. They are tasked with exercising good judgement and restraint. A new group, called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, brings together “130 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and attorneys general from all 50 states…calling for the end to unnecessary incarceration in the U.S. — while maintaining public safety” to further this goal. Some of these prosecutors are rising to the challenge, while others have yet to fully embrace the challenge.  Adam Foss, the assistant district attorney in Suffolk, Massachusetts, has told large audiences that prosecutors can use their discretion, getting creative to help offenders while keeping communities safe.

Tactics such as stacking multiple repeat offender enhancements to ensure centuries-long sentences are the opposite of “a nationwide reduction in incarceration while continuing to keep our communities safe.” Unless he wants to be remembered as a backward-looking prosecutor, Brauchler should be exploring data-driven solutions, based on real-world successes, to reduce crime and increase public safety in order to improve the livelihoods of the communities he serves.