If It Pleases the Prosecution

By Jessica Brown, Knowable

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.

A 2015 report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center compared the racial demographics of California prosecutors with those of the state’s population. It found a significant mismatch.  Read the full report here .

A 2015 report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center compared the racial demographics of California prosecutors with those of the state’s population. It found a significant mismatch. Read the full report here.

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.

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