“If you are going to reduce the prison population, prosecutors are going to be the ones who have to lead the way.”
Since Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff wrote those words, in a paper published in 2011, analysts have been focusing on his argument that the nation’s historic and unprecedented prison growth since 1994 was not primarily driven, as many believed, by legislation—but rather by increased filing of felony charges by prosecutors.
He concluded that, in order to be successful, justice reform efforts would have to focus on prosecutors.
But until recently, the public had little understanding of what Pfaff also called the “the least transparent part of the criminal justice system,” particularly the enormous power wielded by prosecutors to determine who is charged, who may plead out, and who goes to prison.
Nor did many recognize the considerable influence district attorneys exerted in state public policy debates.
In an effort to pierce what Pfaff has termed the “prosecutorial black box,” the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School conducted a series of interviews with former and current prosecutors.
My colleagues and I were particularly interested in hearing about the experiences of individuals who had tried to enact reforms from the inside. To encourage optimal honesty, we assured confidentiality to everyone we spoke with.
The result was a series of revealing interviews that shed light on why many prosecutors become disillusioned with their jobs, and on the discomfort felt by African-American prosecutors, in particular, about being put in a position of, as one said, “sending other black men to prison.”
Public awareness of the prosecutors’ role is rapidly changing in districts across the country—red, blue and purple—as education campaigns waged by justice reform advocates are galvanizing voters to elect openly reform-minded district attorneys.
In Houston, Mississippi, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, and most recently, in Philadelphia, these leaders are promising to make the system fairer, more equitable, and more transparent. Many have pledged to reduce the prison population, change bail practices, divert non-violent offenders, end marijuana prosecutions, and reduce racial disparities in the system.
But there’s still a long way to go.
A recent survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts found that almost 40 percent of respondents did not even know that district attorneys were elected. As a result, most DAs routinely cruised to re-election, often without an opponent.
With a growing cohort of reformers now ensconced in office, advocates are closely monitoring their actions. In particular, they are questioning whether reform can be initiated and sustained from within the very offices that have been most responsible for “mass incarceration.”
And, if reforms are possible, where are the most promising levers?
Our survey explored these and other questions. Below is a short summary of what we found.
The Career Disconnect
When discussing with prosecutors what had initially attracted them to the job, most spoke of wanting to make a difference in the community, of wanting to be “players,” of finding solutions to social problems, “solving puzzles,” helping victims of crime, and to gain trial skills.
Yet, once in office, they all told us, they were evaluated almost exclusively on a very narrow set of metrics—their trial skills, ability to quickly go to trial and to win convictions:
“You were measured by the speed with which you are moving cases and you better get a conviction,” commented one interviewee. “You charged out everything that you could possibly charge out. A good plea meant a lot of time.”
Another mentioned that a memo would be sent around the office every time a prosecutor won a case, with “a lot of high fives based on how many years someone is sent away.”
Someone else explained that, when a defendant received a 15-year sentence or higher, the prosecutor’s photograph would be hung on a wall, next to a photograph of the defendant and of the referring FBI agent.
We noted a distinction, which needs to be further explored, between how white and black prosecutors initially approached their jobs. Many of the black prosecutors with whom we spoke expressed ambivalence about entering a field which required them to put so many other African Americans in prison.
One told us, “My struggle was being a black man in a position where I would be sending other black men to prison.”
Said another: “During the period I was there, there was no concern about mass incarceration, over-criminalization or reducing prison population. Those issues were never raised.”
While several white prosecutors told us they eventually became troubled by the racial disparities in prosecutions, it was not an initial concern, whereas the black prosecutors raised it immediately.
The Tipping Point
One surprising insight that emerged from several interviews was the deep emotional toll that prosecutorial work exacted over time. Several interviewees mentioned feeling empty, sad, and isolated, particularly because the office culture did not encourage them to be “soft.”
For a few, a particular case became a tipping point:
One moment—a black man had gone to trial for selling crack. It was the same story over and over…I decided to drive by, and sure enough, there was someone else selling crack at the same house where the defendant, now serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence, had been arrested….Nothing had changed.
Winning a trial was supposed to be this moment of joy and accomplishment. You stand up and hug and laugh—but I felt crushed. This is one big swamp of tragedy.
One case “overwhelmed me” and sent me over the edge. One mother had a son who was killed, another who killed. She lost both sons. They were from the same communities. Our approach was not working.
We asked interviewees how they would change or reform the job. Here are some of the recommendations we heard most frequently.
Improve Recruitment and Training
Several of the individuals we interviewed discussed the need to cast a wider net when recruiting for new positions in the field, and, in particular, to seek out individuals “who are not so black and white” in their thinking about the consequences of breaking the law.
A few also noted the vast cultural, racial, ethnic and demographic differences between many prosecutors and the communities where they work.
“You cannot exact retribution on a community without any knowledge or understanding of that community,” commented one.
They recommended that all incoming prosecutors undergo training that included visiting prisons, speaking with incarcerated individuals, and understanding the full impact of incarceration and criminal control on an individual life’s and on the life of his or her family.
Broaden the Metric
Almost every interviewee noted that the metrics for measuring the performance of prosecutors were far too narrow.
Trial skills were valued extremely highly, along with an ability to move to trial quickly (“we don’t want to be the ones to slow the process down”), and, of course, to secure convictions.
But several mentioned that any positive contribution they chose to make, for instance, by working in communities, went largely unnoticed. While they weren’t actively discouraged from taking part in community events, they weren’t rewarded for doing so either.
“Nobody sent an e-mail around the office when I helped someone go to college instead of prison,” said one.
Collect More and Better Data
The lack of data collected by most District Attorney offices, according to several interviewees, hobbled reform efforts. It kept the public, and the staff, from measuring the office’s effectiveness on a variety of indicators beyond conviction rates.
This has led some to seize upon the work of organizations such as Measures for Justice, which gathers data on a host of criminal justice indicators at the county level in three broad areas—public safety, fair process and fiscal responsibility.
Using this data offers one way to hold District Attorney offices accountable on a far broader set of publically-available metrics for performance.
Ease the Emotional Toll
Many prosecutors spoke of feeling isolated, increasingly uncomfortable with a culture that focused exclusively on convictions and harsh prison sentences, yet fearful of appearing “soft.”
One interviewee suggested “term limits” to ensure that individuals did not develop “shells of hardness.”
Another observed that a broader set of metrics, which rewarded prosecutors for positive efforts within the community, might create more balance for line prosecutors, and ease their sense of isolation.
These interviews represent just a first step.
We need more data—both quantitative and qualitative—to more fully understand how changes to prosecutorial culture and incentives can accelerate the movement to create a more equitable and humane justice system.
Robert F. Kennedy once said that “every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” It’s therefore ultimately up to every community to insist upon a district attorney’s office that reflects its priorities and values.
Johanna Wald is the former director of strategic planning at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. She welcomes comments from readers.