The field of prosecution is changing rapidly. We are seeing an unprecedented number of reform-minded prosecutors running for, and often winning, elected office. Their platforms highlight priorities including fairness, community well-being, reducing mass incarceration, and accountability.
Why does this matter? Because prosecutors have vast discretionary power over criminal case processing—they decide which offenses to prosecute, which defendants to suggest for pretrial detention, which cases to divert, which plea deals to offer, and which sentences to recommend. Prosecution reforms therefore have the potential to improve the criminal justice system profoundly.
At Florida International University and Loyola University Chicago, we have partnered with four forward-thinking elected prosecutors in Jacksonville, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Tampa to promote more effective, just, and transparent decision making in prosecution. The project is a two-year bipartisan effort to take a fresh look at prosecutorial performance and decision making, and is part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.
We are thrilled to be working with four elected prosecutors who are committed to data-driven reforms. One important form of data is input gathered from all levels of the prosecutors’ office, so in the first phase of this project, we conducted interviews and online surveys with prosecutors from our four partner offices. We asked them about their views on success, office priorities, community engagement, incarceration, and racial and ethnic disparities. A few key findings from the resultant report are:
- Prosecutors have difficulty articulating what success means to them. This is in part because prosecution is a complex, multifaceted undertaking. It is also because prosecutors concentrate on “doing the right thing” case by case rather than thinking about their overall impact.
- Prosecutors widely acknowledge that their offices are committed to using alternatives to incarceration and prioritizing cases with the greatest public safety return. However, other facets of the elected prosecutors’ visions do not always trickle down to line attorneys. Mid-level managers do not always support their leaders’ priorities and may fail to communicate those priorities to their line staff.
- Some prosecutors consider community engagement essential, believing that it develops trust and encourages community members to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement. Others say community engagement does not have any meaningful purpose. Only a few believe it helps prosecutors better understand and respond to the unique needs of each community they serve.
- Prosecutors often attribute racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system to greater rates of offending among people of color and to police patrolling tactics that focus on high-crime, disadvantaged communities of color. Prosecutors believe that they themselves do not contribute to disparities in case processing and that it cannot be the responsibility of the prosecutors’ office to address existing disparities.
- Many prosecutors are averse to the use of data, arguing their decisions should be based only on the facts in each case and not on any summary statistics. They worry that looking at case trends would give critics ammunition to inappropriately assign them labels like racist, punitive, and lazy.
We need to know how prosecutors think to implement and sustain positive changes in prosecution. Streamlining the communication of office priorities, explaining the value of community engagement for crime prevention, discussing how unwarranted racial and ethnic disparities can be identified and reduced, and providing examples of the successful integration of data into policy and practice are just a few of the ways prosecutors’ offices may be able to overcome existing barriers to reform. Our partner offices aim to use the findings in this report to improve their own management and communication strategies, but we hope the report can also be useful to other prosecutors around the country who have a similar appetite for reform.
The next phase of the project will focus on formulating prosecutorial performance indicators to track progress toward greater efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. We will publish two additional reports in conjunction with this phase. Researcher-prosecutor partnerships are rare, but we hope this project will show the potential value of these partnerships and encourage research communities and prosecutors’ offices to seek each other out as the field of prosecution continues its exciting move forward.