The criminal justice system is a complex organism with many members in the face of the attorneys, judges, jury, regulations, prosecutors, and others. Prosecutors, in turn, possess enormous power when it comes to critical decisions about the criminal cases’ propulsion and judgment on them. Because of their authority, these official figures have pressure from different parts of the community and the government. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the functions of the prosecutor and to analyze the implications and appropriateness of the prosecutors’ engagement within a political party.
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Firstly, it is crucial to understand the role of a prosecutor in the criminal justice system and the standards to follow for the prosecutor to perform their functions properly. According to the American Bar Association (2018), the prosecutor is “any attorney, who acts as an attorney to investigate or prosecute criminal cases or who provides legal advice regarding a criminal matter” (par. 1). In other words, the prosecutor is most often a representative of the government, or the district attorney who stands on the accusation side of the criminal case. From the definition, is it possible to see that the prosecutor represents a justice commissioner who is actively involved in the investigation or prosecution of various criminal cases.
The fact that a prosecutor is a legal figure implies that there are specific functions and standards that they should perform and follow. One of the most basic rules is that their judgment should be independent and isolated from prejudices or biases. The prosecutor needs to follow this criterion for the outcomes of the cases to be subjective and fair. Another standard is for the prosecutor to have a clear vision of the individuals’ constitutional rights, whether it is a victim, a suspect, or a defendant.
The DA should pursue to press the charges against the guilty one and protect the innocent. Thus, it is vital for them to act with integrity and to continue the allegations of the appropriate level of punishment, and at the same time, to consolidate public safety (ABA, 2018). Those standards focus on the subjectivity, reliability, and truthfulness of the hand of the law.
The next fundamental criterion for the prosecutor is acting according to the principles of professional and ethical conduct. Avoiding the presence of impropriety while performing their functions is integral to follow this standard. Besides, the district attorney and their office should try to support the efforts of the community in the problems that can lead to criminal activity or become its result. Thus, the prosecutor “is not merely a case-processor but also a problem-solver” because it is their responsibility to contemplate the purposes of the criminal justice system in general (ABA, 2018). Those are the primary functions of the prosecutor, who should act according to the law and ethical conduct.
The investigation of the performance standards for the prosecutor lays out the foundation to examine the research about the election of the district attorneys. Currently, in the United States, the voters elect the prosecutors, but the situation has not always been like that. In the times after the Revolutionary War, the judges or governors were appointing those people within the state of their legislature (Ellis, 2012).
However, the prosecutors gained the unrestricted power over criminal hearings, which raised doubts in the political reformers that the judgment of the appointed attorneys can be fair and efficient. Thus, there was a belief the removal of the prosecutors from the partisan politics would be beneficial and that the elected ones could be more liable to the voters (Ellis, 2012). It led to the fact that in the US, the district attorneys became elected officials.
One should mention that prosecutors represent mighty people within the criminal justice system of the country. At this point, it is relevant to start analyzing the role of the official figure’s involvement with the political parties. It is interesting that in Canada, Japan, and Western Europe countries, the prosecutors are required to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan (Tonry, 2012). This requirement exists because the official figures can make their decisions regardless of public opinion or the party’s priorities. Still, in the United States, the situation slightly differs from those countries.
According to Tonry (2012), sometimes, the prosecution attorney “openly and unashamedly take media reactions, public opinion, and political considerations into account” (p.2). Consequently, there are external factors that influence the prosecutor’s decision about which cases to take and how to manage them (Tonry, 2012). Thus, the absence of nonpartisan obligation for American prosecutors might have an impact on the integrity and independence of their judgment.
A significant point is the accountability of the public opinion, or, in other words, democratic accountability. Prosecutors possess enormous power, and as one of the paragraphs above mentions, their judgment should be free from subjectivity and should be based on the circumstances of the individual case. Today, the elected officials might alter their opinions in correspondence with the view of the community to meet its values and, thus, establish democratic accountability (Tonry, 2012).
For example, in his study, Nelson (2014) researches how the local-level opinion can influence the decision of the prosecutor on whether to dismiss the charges or not. The researcher takes cases of marijuana sentencing in the state of Colorado and evaluates the results. The findings show that in jurisdictions that did not have great support for the legalization of marijuana, the prosecutors tended not to dismiss any charges and continue with the trial (Nelson, 2014). Hence, there is a piece of evidence that public opinion might alter the district attorney’s evaluation of the specific cases.
Public opinion consideration has strong ties with one’s political preferences. The next crucial aspect that the paper has already noted is the prosecutor’s political involvement and the influence of the activities within a specific party on their decisions. This piece of work has already established that in the United States, there is no prerequisite for the district attorneys to be nonpartisan. Thus, today, many prosecutors have strong political inclines, and some of them begin their political careers with the DA position.
For instance, Sawyer and Clark (2017) have analyzed Shugerman’s research that connects the activities of the prosecutors to the politics in different states throughout the last more than one hundred years. They conclude that “prosecutors with political aspirations appear to have prioritized public opinion and personal gain over justice” (Sawyer & Clark, 2017, par. 6). One can say that besides public opinion, the factor of career ambitions plays a role in the criminal justice system.
Another critical issue to consider is the federal corruption convictions. Davis and White (2019) examine those convictions throughout the last more than 40 years and analyze how the involvement with a specific political party influenced those. The findings show that there is a drop for almost ten percent in those convictions if “a state’s governor belongs to the same party as the president who appointed local US attorneys” (Davis & White, 2019, p.1).
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Also, prosecutors possess the autonomy to determine whether to seek the investigations or press charges against the officials who are assumed to be corrupted. The research reveals that for federal attorneys, the career has a higher priority than the aspiration to reduce the number of corruption crimes (Davis & White, 2019). Federal corruption sentences can have implications in the elections, which motivates the prosecutors to have partisan favoritism and do a political favor (Davis & White, 2019). Therefore, one can observe close ties between the district attorney’s actions and politics.
Thus, the prosecutors in the United States became more partisan with the incline to be impacted by politics and public opinion. The paper has already discussed the democratic accountability of the district attorneys, and it is also integral to take a look at which sense the characteristic “partisan” can influence those elected officials. Brown (2016) suggests that it does not necessarily mean that the prosecutors will start using their legal authority to protect the interests or promote the objectives of a specific political party. However, the scholar also states that such cases happened in the past, not only in the US but in other countries, where the prosecutors are non-partisan, as well (Brown, 2016). The prosecutors do not always meet the expectations of the criminal justice system for them to be fully independent in their decisions.
Also, if the district attorney supports a political party, they might develop biases that can have a weight on their preferences and commitments, as well as on the judgments in particular cases. There is a threat that being politically attuned can lead to the situation, in which the prosecutors “use an office as a platform for politically contested policies” (Brown, 2016, p. 47). For instance, the research reveals that prosecutorial support of the Republican party often leads to harsher punishment (Brown, 2016).
Various studies claim that during the election cycles, the choices that the district attorney made concerning sentencing on specific cases often differ. During the year that goes before the elections, prosecutors tend to dismiss a lower number of instances and pursue more severe indictments (Brown, 2016). Those studies outline the foundation to consider that active involvement of the DA with the political party might have adverse effects on the fairness of the system.
Thus, the prosecutors’ election is interesting to observe in terms of the tendencies they have during this specific period in different states. As far as more cases are taken to trial and more severe charges are pressed, one can suppose that the number of appeals in a few years increases. Another study examined the variations in the prosecutor’s judgments during the elections and the results of the further petitions. The results of the research revealed that numerous sentences and convictions during the polls periods are inaccurate, and the appeals that take place after the elections tend to have positive outcomes for the appellants (McCannon, 2013). Thus, despite the politics’ influence on the prosecutors’ decisions, the appeals serve as the saving option for the wrongfully convicted.
One more thought-provoking thing is the public expectations when it comes to the prosecutors’ elections. Wright (2014) proposes that the fact of the existence of those elections in the USA “reflects a distinctively American distrust of the power of positive law” (593). The researcher states that the public has very high outlooks for the elected prosecutors because people believe that it will help legitimize their actions (Wright, 2014). The community expects the elected officials to work on increasing public safety and to strengthen the role of the pubic when it comes to criminal justice (Wright, 2014). Thus, there is an inclination to the country’s political interests because the public wants the prosecutor to act according to its interests and support its position.
The fact that there is a change in the prosecution tendencies in the period preceding elections highlights the issue of the discrete power of the district attorneys. Still, there are cases, when, on the contrary, non-political characteristic of the prosecutor leads to bipartisan support. Cole, Smith, and DeJong (2019) provide an example of Lynch, the first woman who got the top position at the Justice Department. It is noted that the woman managed to get this support because she used to be a federal prosecutor, and her record illustrated fair judgment, without any political prejudices (Cole et al., 2019). One might note that maintaining a neutral position concerning political tendencies can have a favorable impact on the future of the official figure.
However, while running for the position, the prosecutors tend to look for financial and public support for their campaigns. It is believed that when the elections have a nonpartisan nature, the interests of the voters subside, and the higher chances for the candidate to get the position is to get the political party’s support. Because of that, various issues arise later, and such accusations as a punitive ideology or the ambiguity appear (Sklansky, 2018). Therefore, there is a challenge from the very beginning for the elected officials to perform independent justice because they have unspoken obligations to the supporting party.
One of the paragraphs above discusses the standards that the prosecutors should follow. However, the fact that those official figures can be politicized can violate one of the most crucial standards, which is independent judgment. When the prosecutor becomes partisan, there is a chance of abusing power and exploiting legal possibilities. Spakovsky (2014) proposes that some of the United States prosecutors may let politics misuse their authority and dictate the way they manage cases.
In his writing, Spakovsky (2014) makes a real example of a prosecutor who dropped the charges against two environmental activists, because he agreed with their political views on the danger of climate change. The scholar believes that politics should have no place and should not interrupt criminal justice because everyone deserves fair and equal protection and treatment, despite the general political considerations (Spakovsky, 2014). The environmental case, in turn, is a clear illustration of a legal figure making their justice based on personal political beliefs.
There are more examples of how the inclination to the political party manipulated the prosecutor’s decision. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released a report that examines the relationship of the party preferences and the rates of direct files in the district of California (Males, 2016). The findings exhibited that the cases of youth felonies were more likely to be filed in the country with a DA who belongs to a Republican party than to the one who is a democrat (Males, 2016).
If the respondent was African American, the chance of the case to be filed was five times higher. If the respondent was Asian, the rate increased by almost ten times. Those are the results for the DAs who supported the Republican party. It is interesting to indicate that in a Yuba County, where the prosecutor was Democratic, the rate of direct files was significantly high (Males, 2016). Thus, the elected prosecutor’s connection to a political party increases the level of disparities in the criminal justice system.
It is essential to take a look at the imprisonment rates within the country. According to Arora (2019), America is “the world leader in incarceration rates.” The researcher notes that even though that the crime rates were slowly decreasing within the last years, the number of detentions kept growing. Another finding reveals one more sign of the differences between Republican and Democratic prosecutors, who do not have nonpartisan policies.
As was mentioned above, in the counties that have Republican DAs, the rate of sentencing a criminal for a longer term is higher than in the counties with Democratic prosecutors. However, the higher number of incarcerations does not reduce the number of crimes within those counties (Arora, 2019). It is another indication of how politics shape the judgment and influence the criminal prosecution rates within different regions.
Hence, one can argue that prosecutors face a serious conflict of interests when it comes to performing justice, based on the pressure from the publicity and the political parties’ inclinations. Green and Roiphe (2017) stick to the point that different interests and motivations can drive the prosecutors’ decisions. The paper has already discovered the variations during the elections, the influence of democratic accountability, and the disparities between two partisan tendencies. The scholars argue that several solutions can help minimize the conflict of interests and make the work of the elected officials more independent.
One of the proposed solutions is to disqualify the prosecutors who performed based on their interests and beliefs. Another proposition is to provide greater supervision for the DAs’ offices, which can reduce the level of their power discretion (Green & Roiphe, 2017). The scholars believe that altering the legal framework can also positively contribute to the appearance of nonpolitical prosecutors (Green & Roiphe, 2017). Thus, there are solutions for the emerging issues within the prosecution influence.
In conclusion, one can claim that the role of the prosecutors within the criminal justice system is complex and imposes numerous challenges. Independent judgment, compliance with ethical and professional codes, as well as with all the legislative regulations, are at the core of the prosecutors’ responsibilities. The nonpartisan or political nature of the elected official figures is related to different decisions. The research in this paper shows the variations within the prosecutors’ choices concerning incarceration and punishment level between the supporters of the Democratic and the Republican party. It is possible to state that such influential and responsible figures should stick to nonpartisan principals, which can ensure the subjectivity of opinions and verdicts.
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