Strategic Prosecution: An Approach to Reducing the Consequences of the Existing Criminal Justice System
Date:  06-10-2015

Will prosecutors be willing to “reconceptionize” their thinking in order to play an important role in reducing consequences of the existing criminal justice system?
The National Network for Safe Communities offers as its mission supporting “jurisdictions implementing strategic interventions to reduce violence and community disorder. These strategies combine the best of law enforcement and community-driven approaches to improve public safety, minimize arrests and incarceration, enhance police legitimacy, and rebuild relationships between law enforcement and distressed communities.”

But it is the Network’s guiding principles that make them standout among organizations committed to reducing violence and making communities safer and stronger.

The Network states that it is committed to the following principles, the first one especially forward thinking:

  • First do no harm

  • Strengthen communities’ capacity to prevent violence

  • Enhance legitimacy

  • Offer help to those who want it

  • Get deterrence right

  • Use enforcement strategically

    In the National Network for Safe Communities’ Spring issue of Chronicle a new strategy involves working with prosecutors to “reconceptionize” the role of prosecutors in reducing violence via “strategic prosecution.”

    The National Network for Safe Communities article on strategic prosecution that appeared in the Chronicle follows:

    “The National Network has typically designed the law enforcement component of its violence intervention strategies through partnership with police departments. However, it is entirely possible to imagine a prosecutor’s office organized to conduct its work consistent with violence reduction goals. In collaboration with the Brooklyn, New York, district attorney's office we have begun to pilot a basic direction and design for a fundamental reconception of the function and office of the prosecutor.

    For all practical purposes, prosecutors nationally have functioned largely as a passive element in the broader criminal justice system: they have taken cases provided to them by the police, made charging and plea decisions within a relatively narrow statutory and discretionary framework, and handed defendants over to the courts and corrections. Marginal innovations, such as geographically focused or “community” prosecution andadditions, such as reentry programs, have not fundamentally altered this profile. For the most part, prosecutors have not taken independent responsibility for addressing core serious crime problems; held themselves accountable for on-the-ground performance in key areas such as crime reduction and recidivism; produced their own crime prevention and control strategies; conducted their own crime analysis; or considered their role in addressing key issues such as community concerns about intrusive and illegitimate criminal justice practices and the damaging community impact of concentrated arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

    The National Network now envisions a prosecutor’s office that breaks this mold and establishes itself as not only an important partner to other criminal justice agencies but an independent and effective strategic actor in reducing crime, enhancing the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, strengthening the capacity of communities to prevent and reduce crime, and reducing the unintended consequences of existing criminal justice practices. Such a prosecutor’s office would include the following core elements:

  • An explicit commitment to independently producing crime reduction;

  • An explicit commitment to reducing community harms from the criminal justice process;

  • A set of core strategies designed to address a set of particularly important crime and public safety issues;

  • The internal strategic and managerial capacity to design and implement those strategies;

  • The data and analytic base necessary to design, implement, and assess those strategies.

  • Within those strategies, elements designed to minimize arrest and prosecution by mobilizing direct communication with high-risk groups and individuals; mobilizing community informal social control; enhancing the legitimacy of the prosecutor’s office and the criminal justice system; employing deterrence before actual enforcement; and where enforcement is required, applying the minimal level requisite;

  • Working partnerships with those necessary to implement these approaches: police and other criminal justice agencies; communities and key actors within communities; social service providers; outreach workers; and academics.

    In the coming months, the National Network expects to work closely with Brooklyn district attorney's office to further develop this new conception of the function of the prosecutor and touch on each of these core elements.”