The State of Prosecution

A Focus on the Power of Prosecutors

Every day, prosecutors’ actions impact the millions of people who come in contact with the criminal justice system. Yet prosecutors provide the public with almost no information about the decisions they make: including whether or not to charge a person who has been arrested, whether to seek bail and in what amounts, or how plea offers are determined.

But that’s changing in some communities around the country. In 2018, advocacy groups and the media continued recent efforts to draw attention to the power of prosecutors and their role in growing and sustaining mass incarceration. That attention, in part, translated into change in jurisdictions across the nation, where voters organized to elect local lead prosecutors who campaigned on reform platforms.[]See Nathalie Baptiste, “There Was a Blue Wave in District Attorney Races Too,” Mother Jones, November 7, 2018. A punitive, regressive approach to prosecution continued to prevail in the federal system—and seems likely to endure, as William Barr emerged as President Trump’s nominee to replace ousted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Over the course of 2018, some local lead prosecutors—both those newly in office and those who have been in office for a few years—worked to put campaign promises of reform into action. Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance have all directed their prosecutors to recommend pretrial release on many lower-level charges; Circuit Attorney Gardner declined cases from law enforcement officers if the office had concerns about the credibility of their testimony; and State’s Attorney Foxx released data from hundreds of thousands of cases handled by her office. Though these reforms demonstrate progress in some jurisdictions, influential state prosecutors’ associations across the country worked to block criminal justice reform legislation that otherwise had bipartisan support.

Top Things to Know

  1. Voters elect another cohort of prosecutors committed to justice reform.
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  2. Sessions out as Attorney General—but his “tough on crime” agenda continues.
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  3. Prosecutorial power finds itself in the spotlight.
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  4. Local prosecutors are taking bail reform into their own hands, with mixed success.
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  5. Prosecutors’ associations wield legislative influence, hindering reforms.
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Facts and Figures

  • More than


    Number of data points released by Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx as part of sharing information about the office’s processing of felony cases over a six-year period.[]Cook County State’s Attorney, “State’s Attorney Foxx Announces Unprecedented Open Data Release,” press release (Chicago: Cook County State’s Attorney, March 2, 2018).

  • 97%

    Percentage of 316 prosecutors in four surveyed offices who ranked "Ensuring that defendants with mental health and substance use problems receive appropriate services" at least "moderately important."[]Besiki Kutateladze, Ryan Meldrum, Rebecca Richardson, et al., Prosecutorial Attitudes, Perspectives, and Priorities: Insights from the Inside (New York: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2018), 9, 21, 33, & 45.

On Our Radar

  • In Chicago, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx provides unprecedented public access to prosecution data.
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  • Prosecutors stall New York’s first-of-its-kind commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct.
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  • Four prosecutors commit to taking a data-driven look at office priorities and policies.
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  • California gives prosecutors the power to recommend reduced sentences—for people already serving time.
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  • Prosecutors engage the justice involved.
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Vera Staff

External Reviewers

  • Lucy Lang