The immense powers of prosecutors throughout the US mean that the scales are tipped against defendants — and justice itself, says a legal expert
Every country with a functioning criminal justice system depends on prosecutors, the attorneys who charge defendants with crimes and build the case to convict. But the ones in the US are a breed apart. They are more than agents of the court: Top prosecutors in every US county typically have to run for the office, making them elected officials as well. No other nation in the world elects its prosecutors, and few give them so much power.
Prosecutors in the US have broad discretion over how and when to press their cases, which means they often control the fates of defendants, says Stanford Law School professor David Alan Sklansky. In a 2018 paper published in the Annual Review of Criminology, Sklansky notes that prosecutors are increasingly blamed for the problems that plague US criminal justice — its excessive severity, its lopsided targeting of racial minorities and its propensity for error. Part of the difficulty, he suggests, is the largely unchecked power of prosecutors.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any major nation. And the prison population looks far different from the country as a whole. More than 75 percent of the residents of the US identify as white and about 13 percent identify as black. But at the end of 2016, black inmates outnumbered white inmates by 487,000 to 440,000. One report found that black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at an average rate five times that of white Americans.
Black men also receive federal prison sentences that are on average almost 20 percent longer than those of white men who commit the same crime. When prosecutors offer a plea deal, white defendants are 25 percent more likely than black defendants to have their most serious initial charge dropped or reduced to a less severe charge. And there are a disturbing number of cases in which prosecutorial misconduct has led to convictions that later are overturned on appeal. In one famous case from 1987, prosecutors removed all four potential black members from a jury that later convicted a black man named Timothy Foster of murder. The prosecutors denied that they were motivated by race during jury selection. Years later, Foster’s lawyers obtained prosecutors’ notes and the Supreme Court declared, by a vote of 7-1, that the jury selection in his trial was unconstitutional.
In another case, Anthony Graves, a 26-year-old black man in Texas, was wrongfully convicted in 1994 of murdering a family of six. He ended up spending 18 years behind bars, including 12 years on death row. The real murderer, Robert Carter, eventually confessed that he had acted alone, and investigations showed that the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, withheld testimony that would have cleared Graves.
A growing chorus of legal scholars and reform-minded prosecutors has called for a new approach that would restore fairness and justice to the prosecutorial process. But Sklansky says reform won’t come easy. Any meaningful change must start with disentangling prosecutors from conflicting roles that straddle the legal and political systems. In other words, he says, we must be clearer about what we want from prosecutors.
Sklansky spoke with Knowable about the rise of prosecutors and the need for reforms to restore fairness and justice. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the biggest problem with prosecutors in the US?
It’s hard to say. There are actually several different problems with US prosecutors. One is that they have so much power to coerce guilty pleas, another is that they have almost unbridled discretion over how to use that power. A third is that prosecutors are often overzealous and break the rules, and a fourth is that they are sometime unimaginative about how to use their discretion more constructively.
But I think the most fundamental problem may be that we have complicated and often contradictory expectations for prosecutors. We want them to be impartial but also to be forceful advocates, to follow the law but also to exercise mercy, and to work closely with the police but also to stand apart from them.
The conflicting expectations for prosecutors, and the ambiguity regarding their role, can make it difficult to regulate them, and difficult for prosecutors themselves to know what it means to do their job well.
Are prosecutors really more powerful than judges?
In many cases, yes. That’s partly due to a surge in statutes calling for mandatory minimum sentences for a wide range of crimes. Because judges have little ability to lower the sentences called for in these statutes, often the only way for defendants to avoid these penalties is to strike a deal with prosecutors — or take their chances at trial. Because prosecutors can threaten such draconian sentences, they have tremendous power to coerce guilty pleas.
Do current laws make it difficult for prosecutors to achieve fair verdicts and sentences?
I wouldn’t say that the laws make it hard for prosecutors to achieve fair results. But they do make it complicated. Some laws — especially many of the laws calling for harsh mandatory sentences — can be unjust when applied to particular cases. So doing justice will often mean being judicious about when these laws should be invoked.
And then there are procedural rules that require prosecutors to take off their advocate’s hat and be fair and impartial. Prosecutors are often called on to decide, for example, when evidence that could be helpful to the defense needs to be disclosed. That’s like asking basketball players to call their own fouls.
We won’t be able to eliminate the ambiguity of the prosecutor’s role, and we should continue to pressure prosecutors to be impartial. But we need to be relatively realistic about how well we can expect them to navigate these conflicting expectations.
Why don’t prosecutors use their powers more fairly?
Again, it’s important to stress that many prosecutors work hard to be impartial, and many do an admirable job of exercising their powers in a balanced, thoughtful way. But many prosecutors’ offices have a culture of competitiveness, and courtroom victories are the primary measure of their success. Prosecutors are attracted to the job partly because of the excitement of legal combat. Too often, convictions and long sentences get celebrated, even if they are undeserved.
It’s hard to shift prosecutors’ priorities from victory to justice. Prosecutors don’t get their names in the newspaper because they worked out a reasonable compromise. “So-and-so convicted on all counts” is an easy headline to write.
If prosecutors want to achieve true justice for defendants, they need to ask themselves some tough questions that go beyond convictions and acquittals — questions that can be very difficult to answer. Have they helped to resolve cases in ways that are equitable and humane? Have they helped move the community forward?
Why do we keep learning about cases where prosecutors have failed to disclose evidence that would help the defense?
Prosecutors have vastly more investigative resources at their disposal than defense attorneys, so they often have more access to information and evidence. Prosecutors are required to share evidence with the defense only if it could help the defendant in a significant way. But because they’re so motivated to win, it can be very hard for prosecutors to objectively decide whether the evidence they’ve uncovered is worth sharing. They have an incentive to convince themselves it isn’t.
Is there a lack of diversity among prosecutors, and does that contribute to unfair and discriminatory practices?
Prosecutors’ offices generally don’t disclose statistics on racial and gender demographics, so we don’t know much about prosecutor diversity. A few years ago, some of my students at Stanford Law School carried out research on the race and gender of prosecutors in California. As far as I know, this was the first time that comprehensive statistics of this kind were compiled for prosecutors in any state. And what the students found was that prosecutors in California are far whiter than the state as a whole.
That matters. There’s very good reason to believe that when prosecutors don’t reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve, it skews their decision-making. Diversity reduces systemic bias and makes it easier for prosecutors to take into account the perspectives of all parts of the community.
Racial diversity is never a panacea. Just as police departments aren’t magically transformed by employing more minority officers, we can’t fix prosecutors’ offices simply be electing or hiring people from different backgrounds. But when prosecutor offices are as diverse as the communities they serve, they bring different skills and perspectives and give fairer consideration to all the factors that should go into prosecutorial decision-making.
Other than increasing diversity, how else could the system be improved?
We need safeguards against prosecutorial power. Strengthening the resources of defense attorneys would be an important step. The vast majority of criminal defendants in the US are represented by appointed counsel, because they’re too poor to hire their own lawyers, and we’ve known for decades that we don’t pay enough to appointed defense attorneys or employ enough of them; they’re overworked and under-resourced. We need to invest more in defense if we want the system to operate properly.
Legislatures can help by rolling back mandatory sentences and by strengthening and clarifying the rules requiring prosecutors to share evidence with defense counsel.
More judicial oversight could also make a big difference. Judges could reclaim some of their power by tightening the rules that require prosecutors to share evidence with the defense. They could force prosecutors to explain and justify their charging decisions and their plea bargaining offers in court. In many courts, judges have the authority to dismiss cases in the interest of justice, such as when prosecutors pursue draconian sentences.
But in order for any of that happen, there would need to be something of a change of judicial mindset; judges would need to believe that prosecutors should be held more accountable, and to believe that it’s part of the business of the judiciary to make that happen.
Finally, there is much that prosecutors themselves can do — and in many places, are doing — to make the system fairer, less discriminatory and less damaging. They don’t need to wait for legislation mandating more disclosure of evidence; they can start doing that on their own. They can stop using unreasonably long mandatory minimum sentences to coerce guilty pleas. And they can work to change the cultures of their offices, so that fair outcomes are celebrated and not just courtroom victories.
Is reform on the horizon?
To some extent, yes. We’re in an unusual moment now because there is great attention to reforming prosecutors’ offices through the ballot box. Criminal justice crusaders have devoted more attention to elections over the last decade. As a result, we have a growing number of head prosecutors who’ve won elections based on a platform of pulling back on mass incarceration and seeking a more balanced approach to criminal justice. For the most part, though, this wave of reform isn’t doing anything to reduce the power of prosecutors’ offices.
How significant is the criminal justice reform bill that passed at the federal level in 2018?
It’s a step in the right direction, although it affects only federal prosecutors. The law modestly cuts back on mandatory minimum sentences and allows federal judges to hand down sentences lower than the statutory minimums without any motion from the prosecutor. That means that federal prosecutors, in some cases, won’t have quite as heavy a hammer to use in pressuring defendants to plead guilty. The new law is important symbolically, even for state prosecutors. It’s a signal of the growing consensus in the US that criminal justice has veered too far in the direction of severity, and that tougher isn’t always better.
What if wider reform doesn’t happen?
If there’s no reform, we’ll likely continue to face the dire problems of the criminal justice system: mass incarceration, excessively long sentences, wrongful convictions and racial bias. Prosecutors have helped to create all of these problems, and they have a critical role in solving them.
Read more about prosecutors
The Fast Track to a US Attorney’s Office — this Harvard Law School guide describes the prosecutor’s role and the paths to becoming one.
Stuck in the ’70s: The Demographics of California Prosecutors — a 2015 paper co-authored by David Alan Sklansky examines the gender and race of the state’s prosecutors.
Prosecution in America — covers the history and the unique aspects of US prosecutors.
The Origins of Public Prosecution at Common Law — the origins and development of prosecutorial roles through history.
Republished with permission under license from Knowable Magazine.