As reform candidates for district attorney are winning office in several cities, it’s time for a new look at the role of prosecutors in the justice system, a Washington DC panel was told Thursday.
Despite their undeniable power over criminal cases, many prosecutors are overworked, understaffed, and in need of guidance from researchers.
That was how some experts portrayed them at a conference held Thursday by the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academy of Sciences.
The committee has sponsored studies of many criminal justice issues over the years, but it has been 17 years since it published the results of a workshop on “What’s Changing in Prosecution?”
Thursday’s session was aimed at giving the panel an update on how the role of prosecutors is evolving.
“We know surprisingly little” about prosecutors, even though they are an important component of the justice system, said Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a sponsor of the Law and Justice Committee.
That assessment was echoed by Miranda Galvin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, who summarized research on prosecutorial issues for the committee.
“Prosecutors’ offices are still largely unknown quantities,” she said.
Speakers at the meeting agreed that now is a good time to focus on prosecutors, as candidates in several jurisdictions have been elected district attorneys on reform platforms.
“Prosecutors are getting attention in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Jamila Hodge, who runs the Reshaping Prosecution program at the Vera Institute of Justice, which was established, according to its website, to help prosecutors understand how their decisions can “lead to the overuse of incarceration, racial disparities, or practices that erode public trust.”
Representatives of organizations that specialize in prosecution issues told the committee that prosecutors need up-to-date research to help them make decisions, especially on many lower-level criminal cases that don’t necessarily warrant a prison term.
Although judges make ultimate decisions on sentencing, more than 90 percent of U.S. criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, meaning that prosecutors have a great deal of leverage over the penalty that is imposed.
Many prosecutors have large caseloads and hold their jobs only for a few years, and as a consequence they lack experience on sentencing alternatives, said David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. (Criminal defense attorneys have made similar complaints about caseloads.)
Better research is particularly needed on the efficacy of “diversion” programs, in which prosecutors may agree to putting a defendant in some kind of rehabilitation program without bringing the case to court, said Kristine Hamann of the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, which works with district attorneys’ state organizations.
The U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice, has commissioned several study projects involving prosecutors, the agency’s Howard Spivak told the committee.
One of them is a “sentinel event analysis” in which major justice system errors are analyzed in an effort prevent their recurrence.
(See “Looking Beyond the ‘White Bear’ in Criminal Justice,” The Crime Report.)
Still, considerable research on how prosecutors operate remains to be done, experts and committee members said.
Travis of the Arnold Foundation suggested, for example, examining the large role elected prosecutors play in determining prison and jail populations in their areas.
Travis noted that while he served as president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., started an Institute for Innovation in Prosecution to serve as a “national laboratory” for improving prosecution practices. (See John Jay College, Manhattan DA Start Think Tank to Study Prosecutors.)
Based partly on Thursday’s session, the National Academy of Sciences’ committee will decide whether to launch a new study of U.S. prosecutors.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.