A Vision for the Modern Prosecutor
Date:  07-21-2020

The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution contrasts traditional practice with a vision of the future
From the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution:

In the wake of unprecedented and overdue attention on the criminal legal system and its role in our Nation’s legacy of racial injustice, as elected prosecutors and members of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s Executive Session on the Role of the Prosecutor, we believe that it is possible to describe and call for an emerging vision for the role of a modern prosecutor. In doing so, we find it necessary to contrast this vision with a description of the traditional ways that prosecutors have carried out their responsibilities. In this paper we describe this contrast between traditional practice and a vision of the future by comparing their conceptions of justice, modes of operation, culture, accountability, and metrics. In making these contrasts, we celebrate the power and potential of the current wave of prosecutorial reform that we are witnessing around the country. We have high hopes that this movement will support.

Conceptions of Justice Traditionally:

Prosecutors have defined their role principally as part of a larger criminal justice system that operates with a primary focus on case processing. In this conception, prosecutors typically accept cases from the police who bring arrests to the front door of the system. In reviewing these cases, prosecutors apply legal standards that determine whether the police have made a good case and apply protocols and policies developed within the prosecutor’s office. In proceeding with cases and in the exercise of discretion regarding charging and bail recommendations, prosecutors’ offices apply a sense of appropriate dispositions that often reflect “going rates” established by office policies or unarticulated local traditions. Serious cases are typically thought to require pretrial detention and an outcome that includes incarceration. The more serious the case, the longer the period of the prison sentence. These framings and actions have produced racial and other disparities, which prosecutors have typically viewed as a product of larger factors and forces beyond their control. In this paper we use the term “prosecutor” to refer to all lawyers who serve a prosecutorial function, including elected or appointed chief prosecutors.

We believe the future of prosecution requires that:

Prosecutors explicitly set aside this notion of the criminal justice system as a case processing apparatus. We believe that our concept of prosecution should move toward a model of community justice. Most fundamentally, this conception requires that prosecutors engage a broad range of stakeholders and community interests in a respectful and reciprocal manner. Not only is this engagement necessary for the prosecutor to be an agent of just and lasting change, but also for the work of the prosecutors’ office to be viewed as legitimate in our democracy. Prosecutors will necessarily maintain working relationships with other criminal justice institutions and actors, but they should regard themselves as ultimately accountable to the communities they serve. They should welcome the responsibility for producing just and effective processes and outcomes. In striving for these outcomes, the modern prosecutor should recognize that office and local notions of “going rates” for case dispositions have little connection to justice or effectiveness. These heuristics cannot substitute for more thoughtful and grounded conceptions of what represent appropriate case outcomes and justice for the parties involved and the wider community. The identification of incarceration as a necessary corollary of “seriousness,” and the reflexive equating of elevated seriousness with longer sentences of incarceration, must be replaced by broader and more varied ideas and practices regarding just and effective dispositions. Prosecutors must recognize their contribution to producing racial and other disparities and should regard such disparities as unacceptable and hold themselves accountable for their elimination. Finally, as they recognize historical harms caused by the operations of the criminal justice system, they should exercise leadership, as elected officials, in advocating for policies that can ameliorate those harms. Continue reading >>>