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Prosecutors Need More Accountability

Some believe that prosecutors are the most powerful figures in the criminal justice system. Many of their decisions are virtually unreviewable: charging, case disposition, dismissals, plea bargains, and sentence recommendations, to name a few. Local and State prosecutors can be held accountable to the voters.. But given the power of incumbency, that checks and balance is rarely exercised.

The advent of DNA exoneration reversals (233 at last count) in the last decade has hammered home the point: The criminal justice system is not perfect. A 2003 study by the Center for Public Integrity claims that prosecutorial misconduct contributed to decisions on charge dismissals, conviction reversals, and reduced sentences in 2,012 cases since 1970.

Conversely, some say, given the millions of cases during that 23 year period, the “error rate” of less than .1 % is probably the lowest of any civilization in human history. Likewise, almost everyone active in the system would probably say that that rate has fallen dramatically in the last half-century with the judicial reforms of criminal procedure.

Still, a raw number of instances of material misconducts in the thousands is alarming to a public who blithely assumed that the system was always right and that procedural reforms have guaranteed that no innocent person could get convicted.The misconduct figure, plus various estimates of 1% or higher of wrongful convictions, i.e., conviction of the factually innocent, have spawned a nationwide movement to require more transparency and accountability for prosecutorial decision-making.

Such groups as The Justice Project conclude: “This lack of accountability has led to widespread abuse of prosecutorial power, and a flawed and inaccurate criminal justice system.”

In response to this over-generalization, the group recommends sweeping reforms, including: Clearly defined official policies and procedures, open file discovery, documentation of all witness and informant agreements, mandatory judicial reporting of every instance of prosecutorial misconduct, and a review board to investigate and sanction any such misconduct.

For those of us who were and are federal prosecutors, these “reforms” are essentially the status quo, but for many state prosecutors, these changes would severely curtail the wide discretion in which such an overworked system has come to depend.

The Project also advocates wide ranging reform to criminal procedures generally, including: improving and standardizing eyewitness identification practices, electronic recording of interrogations and confessions, expanded discovery rights, and higher standards for the performance of counsel in capital cases.

No doubt some jurisdictions need some of these reforms. Scientific studies on the need for more objective lineup protocols and methods of avoiding false confessions are increasingly persuasive.

Forensic testing problems, likewise, are likely to receive more attention by a public which is getting used to the forensic infallibility of the many television shows on the subject.

The mind-boggling misconduct alleged in the prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and its very public consequences, demonstrates that even federal prosecutors are not immune from such controversies.

Every case like Stevens fosters a new wave of increased and unjustified public cynicism that prosecutors commonly railroad the innocent. The significant difference in these high profile federal cases is that it is the Justice Department itself which has aggressively investigated and taken action in response to allegations of such behavior.

The public is largely unaware that there is a highly effective review and accountability function in the federal system. The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is a meaningful deterrent of misconduct, as well as a source of exoneration for federal prosecutors unfairly accused of misconduct.

Prosecutors, both state and federal, cannot ignore this “reform” movement. They need to participate actively in the public forum, contribute to legislative debate, and acknowledge that, in some jurisdictions, and in some areas of the criminal justice system, changes need to be made.

Ross Parker, a former assistant U.S. Attorney,  is the author of a new book: “Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan 1815-2008”  The book is available on amazon.com and rparker54@comcast.net.


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