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Prosecutorial Reform

Prosecutors are among the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They have the power to worsen America’s crisis of mass incarceration or, by embracing necessary reforms, to drastically curtail it.


Prosec­utors wield tremend­ous power. They decide which charges to bring and whether to seek pretrial deten­tion or cash bail, and they often control the plea-bargain­ing process. Crucially, they also influ­ence senten­cing, determ­in­ing whether and how long defend­ants will remain in prison. With 94 prosec­utors at the federal level and more than 2,400 at the state, county, and city levels, these lawyers play a signi­fic­ant role in shap­ing the crim­inal justice system. In many cases, spurred by punit­ive policies that create incent­ives to put people behind bars, they have fed the epidemic of mass incar­cer­a­tion plaguing the United States.

The conduct of prosec­utors has received a great deal of scru­tiny in recent years, draw­ing atten­tion to instances of the collat­eral consequences of impris­on­ment. At the same time, prosec­utors across the coun­try have sought to imple­ment more equit­able and sens­ible approaches. Respond­ing to the demands of voters, these reform-minded offi­cials are taking the lead in cutting the nation’s prison popu­la­tion. In a 2018 report, the Bren­nan Center proposed a paradigm shift in how prosec­utors are eval­u­ated. Instead of reward­ing them for indict­ing more people, winning more convic­tions, and garner­ing longer sentences, we should reori­ent prosec­utors’ incent­ives toward a differ­ent set of goals: redu­cing crime, incar­cer­a­tion, and recidiv­ism in their districts.

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