Prosecutors are leaders in the justice system and are well-positioned to build broad public trust in law enforcement. Armed with immense discretionary power, they can implement strategies that ensure fairness, reduce unnecessary incarceration, increase trust, support collective action that serves communities in need, focus on smarter crime reduction efforts, and promote greater equity throughout the criminal justice system. More than 90 percent of all criminal cases in the United States are resolved through plea deals—just one reason why many feel that prosecutors are the most influential figures in the justice system. If we are serious about criminal justice reform by reducing crime and improving communities, we must reexamine the role of the prosecutor in America’s evolving justice system. They are uniquely positioned to develop new thinking and generate innovative strategies that can drive change.
In October, the White House worked with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) to take steps toward achieving those goals. On October 24, the White House hosted a prosecutors’ roundtable on criminal justice reform. This roundtable served as a launching point for the important work ahead. With input from elected prosecutors and criminal justice experts from around the country, we started a conversation about the role of the prosecutor in the 21st century.
Together, prosecutors can elevate their voices in addressing critical national issues, advancing national standards of excellence, eliminating unnecessary confinement, increasing transparency around their work, making data- and evidence-based decision making paramount and enhancing the public's trust in the criminal justice system—all while making our neighborhoods safer. This work begins with prosecutors redefining the way they measure success. It involves setting explicit new standards that emphasize crime prevention and public safety, and prioritize fairness and the quality of interactions with the public over severity of sentencing.
Many prosecutors' offices nationwide have already taken steps to advance this important work, including some of those who attended the White House roundtable, have been leaders in initiating new ways of carrying out their responsibilities through intelligence-driven prosecution approaches, youth intervention programs, and formal evaluations of implicit bias in their offices. The next step is to look for new opportunities to drive a more effective strategy to prevent and reduce crime.
To continue building on this work, the IIP is convening an Executive Session of leaders from various fields including prosecutors, defense attorneys, police chiefs, judges, law enforcement researchers and advocates, reform activists, and government officials. In the coming months and years, this group will come together to answer fundamental questions about the role of prosecutors. Additionally, this group is developing seminars for newly-elected district attorneys and mid-level bureau chiefs to help define the culture they hope to foster in their offices. Finally, the group will continue working with prosecutors’ offices to create and implement innovative strategies that reduce crime and minimize incarceration.
The Obama Administration is committed to enhancing the efficiency and fairness of our criminal justice system. We look forward to the future work with the growing number of leaders standing firmly behind criminal justice reform, and we believe that an explicit focus on prosecutors will provide an important avenue for progress.
Meg Reiss, Executive Director, Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Roy L. Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant to the President, Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity