Vera Institute of Justice | Your Local Prosecutor Represents You
An elected district attorney has the power to set policy for an office of hundreds of lawyers, which in turn has a ripple effect to thousands and thousands of cases every month in the system." - Nina Morrison

The Role of the Prosecutor

After people are arrested, their fate is largely in the hands of a prosecutor. Whether they are penalized for poverty, have a fair shot at fighting charges, know what evidence they are confronting, or are locked up are all impacted by prosecutors’ decisions and the recommendations prosecutors make to the judges handling their cases.

The lead prosecutor in a community sets the policies and practices that inform how all of these critical decisions are made in the local prosecutor’s office. Your lead prosecutor has a duty to be responsive to you and other constituents and to run the office in a manner that is reflective of the community’s vision for its justice system. The only consistent tool of public accountability is elections, as the vast majority of lead prosecutors are voted into office. But when voters reach the ballot box, voting for their lead prosecutor becomes a bit of a black box in and of itself. 

Most voters have very little information about candidates’ platforms, the policies they endorse, or their views on how to manage a prosecutor’s office.

Lead prosecutors and their executive staff define the goals of the office, instruct line prosecutors on how to approach decision making on their cases, and evaluate line attorneys based on those goals and instructions. Line prosecutors are responsible for their caseloads and exercise their discretion in the key decisions of their cases. Depending on the extent to which the lead prosecutor implements policies that guide or dictate line prosecutors’ decisions, how they approach these key decisions can vary significantly not just from office to office, but also within a single office. A lead prosecutor’s influence on how the local justice system operates also extends beyond the office and staff to other system stakeholders. Lead prosecutors have considerable influence on other actors in their local system, in particular the police, judges, and juries. 

A prosecutor’s impact on criminal cases can be seen in

7 Critical Decision Points

A line prosecutor’s decision making can essentially be organized into seven basic categories. Click on a case stage to learn more about a prosecutor’s decision at this point and find key questions you can ask your local prosecutor’s office to better understand how those decisions are being made in your community.

Why it Matters

The decisions that prosecutors make every day directly impact the lives of those who have been ensnared in the criminal justice system. When prosecutors use their discretion to give individuals a chance, there can be different results.

While putting herself through pharmacy school in 2011, Patricia O’Malley received the devastating news that her high school boyfriend and his parents had been brutally murdered. Dealing with this tragedy and its aftermath, which required her to testify at trial about the gruesome murders, caused her to go from taking pills occasionally to get high, to needing them to function every day. By the time Patricia started working as a pharmacist at CVS in 2014, her addiction to pills was out of control. The pharmacy’s loss prevention unit discovered that pills were missing and used the store video surveillance system to identify Patricia as the source. The investigation was eventually referred to the District of Columbia U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Instead of pursuing an indictment on various felony charges associated with the stolen pills, however, the prosecutor decided to pursue a different course.  

The prosecutor recognized that Patricia’s actions were clearly driven by a substance use disorder, and she felt strongly that a felony conviction would only hinder Patricia’s recovery and her ability to move forward with the rest of her life. The prosecutor let Patricia enter into a deferred prosecution agreement, which would allow the case to be dismissed if she successfully completed a period of supervision. Patricia saw this as a second chance and immediately focused on accessing the therapy and narcotics anonymous groups that she needed to heal. Patricia has not only maintained her sobriety for the last two-and-a-half years, but she is also active in two narcotics anonymous groups, including one specifically for pharmacists. She has taken a leadership role and serves as a mentor to those who are just beginning their road to recovery. Patricia is frequently invited to speak at in-patient rehabilitation centers and to outpatient groups about her experiences. She is grateful that she had a prosecutor who saw past her actions and recognized her potential.

Your Local Prosecutor Represents You

Prosecutors are accountable to the communities they serve not just on Election Day, but throughout their terms. They are responsible for representing “the people,” including individuals who are accused and their loved ones, those who are harmed, and all who live in their jurisdiction. In this moment of unprecedented focus and advocacy around prosecutors and reform, members of the public have a profound role to play in how prosecutors reshape their role to pursue equal justice and reduce incarceration. 

You can look up your local prosecutor, when they were elected, their stances on six key policy areas, and their contact information on Color of Change’s website “Winning Justice.” Make your voice heard. Let your local prosecutor know what matters to you by asking them the questions in this guide and others that are important to you in order to better understand how decisions are currently being made for your community. Tell your prosecutor what you would like your local justice system to look like and the goals you believe they should prioritize.

Key Questions for Community Members Preguntas Clave para Miembros de la Comunidad