Even as her cases became more intense — she started working murder trials in 2013 — Ms. Lang’s ambitions for improving the office became grander. After she won a wiretap case against 35 people for selling angel dust, heroin and cocaine, she successfully pitched the office’s leadership team on a program promoting alternatives to incarceration for young offenders. (It later became a unit that provides some defendants the chance to participate in community-based programs in lieu of prison.)
By that time, Ms. Lang said, she was not nervous presenting to the office’s leaders; she knew them all.
In January 2017, Ms. Agnifilo promoted Ms. Lang, giving her a special position leading policy at the office. That fall, Ms. Lang piloted the first version of what would become the Inside Criminal Justice initiative, a series of seminars that brought prosecutors and incarcerated people together to talk about the justice system and how to improve it.
Jarrell Daniels, a participant in the initiative who had recently been released from prison, was so intrigued by the program that he asked to return to the facility to continue with it. He remembered sitting around a table in a cramped conference room, watching as the participants grilled Ms. Lang.
“She’s either brave or she’s crazy, or she might be both,” he remembered thinking.
“She sat there kind of poised as they gave it to her about the district attorney’s office and vented about their personal experiences with the justice system,” he said. “Although that wasn’t what she was there for, she kind of allowed them to share their piece.”
‘What are we waiting for?’
Ideas about the criminal justice system changed rapidly during Mr. Vance’s time in office.
In 2010, he was seen as one of the more liberal district attorneys in the country. When he leaves office, at the end of this year, he will do so as a seeming moderate — not because he has necessarily changed, but because a wave of more recently elected prosecutors have moved aggressively to take on what they consider fundamental injustices in the system. (Mr. Vance’s defenders respond that he has cut prosecutions by nearly 60 percent and established one of the nation’s first conviction integrity programs, among other accomplishments.)
More than a dozen of those recently elected prosecutors have endorsed Ms. Lang’s candidacy, including Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney in Baltimore. She said that Ms. Lang was one of the more prominent people behind the scenes in the progressive prosecutor movement, particularly through her work at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, a role she took on in 2018.