Tuesday, October 12, 2004

So, What Do Prosecutors Do, Anyway?

Other than crush crime, fight for truth, justice, and the American way, and help little old ladies across the street, you mean?

Based on questions I get from my business law students, I have the idea that a lot of people don't have a very good idea on how things work in the non-TV world of prosecution (law enforcement in general, for that matter) so I thought I would spend a few posts talking about how a typical mid-sized prosecuting attorney's office works. You have to keep a couple of things in mind. First, there are, generally speaking, 52 jurisdictions in this United States of ours. Fifty states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia. Maybe that's only 51.5 with DC. I don't know enough to know whether or not the District is really all that separate from the federal system in general. However you count them, that's a lot of different ways of doing things: defining crimes; setting procedural rules; establishing responsibilities for different functions -- heck, just deciding what the functions are and who is going to do what is a big deal.

Second, within most of those jurisdictions, there are smaller units of government that, in most cases, are the ones charged with providing front line criminal justice services. Most of us call these things "counties" (parishes in Louisiana, boroughs in Alaska, and they don't count at all in Connecticut and Rhode Island) and there are a lot of them. Three thousand and thirty-three of them, plus 33 city/county combined governments, according to the National Association of Counties. This means, in addition to the gross differences between states, there are at least 3066 different ways of doing everything involved in the criminal justice realm. And I'm only talking about prosecutions on behalf of the State of {fill in the blank}, or the People of the State of {fill in the blank}, or the Commonwealth of {fill in the blank}. This does not take into account the prosecutions initiated by City, Town(ship), Village, or what have you attorneys and the infinite number of ways those things can proceed. So, consider that what I tell you about a a typical office here in the vast Midwest may not even be close to what your county/parish/ borough/city/etc. government does.

Job One

So, what is the number one job of the prosecuting attorney? Well, like everything else in the wacky world of criminal justice, it's subject to debate, but my pick (and it's my blog, so there) is the authorization of criminal warrants. Every other core function of the office flows from this activity. And here's where your mileage may really vary.

And why is that, exactly? Because every state has different ideas of how to get from the police investigation to the formal institution of charges against a suspect. This is most obvious in the prosecution of misdemeanor charges. Some states allow the police to issue a citation and proceed on that up to the point where the defendant enters a formal plea of not guilty. At that point the prosecutor becomes involved. Some states allow minor offenses or offenses of a specified type (e.g. traffic, or fish and game violations) to proceed to completion without the prosecutor ever being involved. Usually, these are offenses where there is no right to a jury trial. On felonies, things tend to be more similar from state to state. In part, this is because of constitutional limits on how long the police may detain a suspect before they must bring him before a judicial officer, and what the judicial officer is supposed to do once the miscreant is before him or her.

More, later.


Anonymous said...

They do count (for something) in Connecticut. See http://www.csao.state.ct.us/AboutUs/statesattorneys.htm . However, a couple of the counties have been split up

because they got too big or for other reasons. But, as you will see there is one State's attorney for each judicial district and no judicial district straddles more than one county.

Mister DA said...

Interesting, about the SA districts. But in relation to how my county can totally screw up things -- not even in the running. What I mean is, county government, in the other 48 states, really controlls things - most particularly budgets. Every dime we get is, in the final analysis, local tax money. It can make for immense differences in offices that seperated by nothing more than a line on a map. The county board sets everything from the Prosecutor's salary on down to how much we have to spend on paper clips.