George Soros has long held as one of his chief goals the reformation of the U.S. criminal justice system. This is been a central aim of many of his philanthropic efforts. Over the last few years, he has begun following a new strategy of replacing low-level, local officials with those who are more sympathetic to fair sentencing and an abolition of the series of laws broadly known as a War on Drugs.
This has led Soros’s philanthropic organizations to donate millions of dollars to campaigns of prosecutors, judges and sheriffs throughout the South. One such example was a case of the Orlando County prosecutor’s race. The incumbent, Jeff Ashton, had a long and sordid history of overseeing tough law and order policies. He racked up an invidious track record of sending minorities to prison at staggeringly disproportionate rates. A staunch believer in the drug war, Ashton had pursued cases that would send many non-violent criminals to Florida state prisons for merely selling or possessing drugs.
But for the first time, he faced real opposition from a newcomer named Aramis Ayala. Ayala is the first black woman to run for prosecutor in the state of Florida. She is also longtime public defender who is a dogged advocate for the right of prisoners and minorities. She ran on the platform of reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and reforming the vast discrepancies that exist between minority defendants and whites in sentencing.
Soros’s Open Societies Foundation infuses Ayala’s campaign with over 1.2 million dollars. Previously, the campaign had been floundering, with virtually no budget for advertising or other crucial means by which to get the word out. Soros’s organization also provided expertise on the ground, crafting an effective strategy that made ample use of television advertisements to mobilize the base of Ayala’s potential voters. The strategy worked. Ayala won in a landslide, defeating longtime incumbent Ashton and giving new hope to Orlando’s downtrodden criminal defendants.
Other such cases have been carried out by George Soros and his organizations throughout the United States. This is a novel and highly effective approach that relies on the fact that, in the United States, perhaps no one has more power to decide who goes to jail and who does not then the prosecutors themselves. This largely centers on the power of the plea bargain, a tool used to alleviate the dramatic overflow of cases that would otherwise swamp courts without the ability to dispense with routine cases, instead needing a trial. While it’s obvious that prosecutors have the power to not charge defendants with a crime, what’s less obvious is that, through the use of the threat of charges carrying serious prison time, prosecutors can use the plea bargain as a means to compel defendants to plead guilty to crimes, effectively deciding who goes to jail. Read more about George’s life story at biography.com.