The power of the prosecutor: The basics 

Thursday, July 28, 2022
Prosecutors are among some of the most powerful yet least understood actors in the criminal legal system – and some of the most difficult to hold accountable. Prosecutors’ choices play a huge role in people’s lives, but many do not understand the enormous power this office has. Prosecutors can determine which laws are enforced and against whom, and how much punishment to recommend. The decisions made by prosecutors are a leading cause of mass incarceration. Prosecutors' offices require greater public transparency. Active and informed voters have the power to hold prosecutors accountable. 
Local elections like prosecutor races have an enormous impact on our criminal legal system and the way our government treats the people it serves. It is important for voters to understand that electing reform-minded prosecutors will help end mass incarceration and create a more equitable justice system. Prosecutorial reform will help end the harms caused by mass incarceration, repairing damage to local communities and protecting people from further harms caused by the criminal legal system.  
Below you can find information about the role and power of the prosecutor as well as additional resources. 

Who is the prosecutor? 

  • The prosecutor is an elected position responsible for bringing all criminal charges for alleged conduct in their jurisdiction. In other states, prosecutors are called district attorneys. 
  • City attorneys are also responsible for some charging decisions. Seattle is the only city in Washington where city attorneys are elected. The Seattle city attorney has authority over misdemeanor offenses filed in Seattle’s municipal court.  
  • Every county in Washington has an elected prosecutor. County prosecutors have authority over felonies and misdemeanors filed in superior and district courts. 
  • They have the authority to decide almost everything after a police investigation has been turned over. This includes whom to charge, how many people to charge, whether to charge a felony or misdemeanor and so forth.  
  • The only check on this power is elections every four years. About 70% of prosecutors run unopposed and incumbents almost always win reelection 
---> A prosecutor is one of the most powerful local elected officials.  

What does the prosecutor do? 

  • The prosecutor has broad discretion over who is incarcerated, for how long and who goes free. 
  • No one else in the system has more opportunities at every step, from just after arrest to sentencing, to impact people’s lives.  
  • They have the power to charge – or not. They have the power to divert people from incarceration – or not. They have the power to offer a plea bargain – or not.  
  • Charging decisions and plea bargain offers are made at the sole discretion of prosecutors. Some prosecutors seek a longer sentence if a defendant takes a case to trial instead of pleading guilty. 
  • This can result in people being afraid to go to trial and risk a longer sentence. People may plead guilty to a crime they did not commit to avoid the risk. 
  • Many prosecutors use practices that punish poor people who cannot pay bonds, legal fines and fees, and private consumer debt. 
---> About 95% of defendants plead guilty.  

What are some of the goals of prosecutorial reform? 

We cannot achieve deep and long-lasting reductions to the U.S. jail and prison populations without major transformations to the practices of elected prosecutors. The decisions of prosecutors are a major driver of mass incarceration and increase racial disparities in the justice system. Prosecutorial reform means changing the incentives that drive prosecutors, such as: 
  • Electing prosecutors who commit to reducing incarceration and increasing alternatives that are more effective at preventing future crime and improving community health and stability.  
  • Supporting practices that proactively address racial disparities in the criminal legal system.  
It also means holding prosecutors accountable in ways they have not been before when they seek convictions at any cost or stand in the way of growing public demand to overhaul the criminal legal system. A transformed prosecutorial system must be fully transparent and accountable. 

Additional Resources 

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