All too often, prosecutors’ offices fall prey to a culture of conviction-seeking at all costs. Prosecutors who become singularly focused on conviction rates often neglect their ethical duty to protect the innocent and guard the rights of the accused. The Kern County District Attorney’s Office in California provides a clear example of this pitfall, boasting that under District Attorney Ed Jagels’ supervision, the office “has had the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County.” What the office fails to highlight is the startling twenty five wrongful convictions that the office has accrued during Jagels tenure as District Attorney. Jagels recently announced his retirement, and despite his appalling record, he hopes to personally select his successor.
The troubling culture apparent in the Kern County office is not the exception. Due in large part to the public pressure to convict and the widespread failure of state bars and disciplinary agencies to hold prosecutors accountable for ethical violations, this culture of “convict at all costs” is a nationwide problem.
With the unique role as both advocates and ministers of justice, prosecutors are the most powerful actors in our justice system. Prosecutors have sole responsibility for decisions regarding what charges to bring against an individual, what sentence to seek, what plea bargain to offer, and what evidence to present to a jury during trial. Yet despite their power, they are rarely held accountable for violating their ethical obligations. This lack of accountability promotes the problematic culture that plagues prosecutors’ offices and contributes to wrongful convictions.
The pervasive culture of conviction-seeking in prosecutors’ offices must be tempered by an overriding goal of justice. The Justice Project’s policy review, Improving Prosecutorial Accountability outlines suggested reforms that can help create a culture that values fairness and accuracy over high conviction rates. For example, prosecutor’s offices should establish training programs and official office policies on the prosecutor’s duty to disclose evidence to the defense and the proper use of prosecutorial discretion. Furthermore, prosecutors who intentionally abuse their power to secure a wrongful conviction must be investigated and disciplined for their actions. The Justice Project also recommends that jurisdictions recognize the unique role of prosecutors through the establishment of prosecutorial review boards with the power to investigate and sanction prosecutors who perpetrate acts of misconduct. Enacting these reforms will foster a more ethical culture in prosecutors’ offices and increase transparency in prosecutorial decision-making.
Creating a culture of accountability in prosecutors’ offices is critical to ensuring the fairness and accuracy of our justice system. Establishing training manuals and office procedures as well as implementing disciplinary measures provide the means of achieving such a culture. These measures will encourage prosecutors to better fulfill their simultaneous and critical roles of convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system. To learn more about John and the work of The Justice Project, connect with TJP on Facebook or follow TJP on Twitter.