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April 17, 2014

Big new empirical analysis of federal prosecutorial charging practices

I just learned about an important NIJ-funded project and report through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service which examines in depth federal prosecutorial charging decisions across US District Courts.  The research was complete by Brian Johnson of the University of Maryland, and the 150+ page report, available at this link, is titled "Missing Link: Examining Prosecutorial Decision-Making Across Federal District Courts."  Helpfully, the report starts with this informative and insightful abstract:

U.S. Attorneys are arguably the most powerful and least studied actor in the federal criminal court workgroup.  They have immense discretion to decide which cases to prosecute and what charging concession to offer in the course of plea bargaining, yet a paucity of empirical research exists on these consequential decisions.  Recent scholarship on criminal sentencing suggests sentencing decisions vary significantly across court contexts, but virtually no prior work investigates jurisdictional variations in prosecutorial decision-making outcomes.

The current study uses unique data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on federal criminal case processing to study these issues.  It links information across multiple federal agencies in order to track individual offenders across the various stages of the federal justice system.  Specifically, it combines arrest information from the U.S. Marshall’s Service with charging information from the Executive and Administrative Offices of the U.S. Attorney and with sentencing information from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Linking data from these multiple sources provides a unique opportunity to study elusive prosecutorial decision-making outcomes in the federal justice system. These individual data, then, are subsequently augmented with additional information on federal courts to examine contextual variations in charging decisions across federal jurisdictions.

Findings from this research suggest several important conclusions.  First, there is little systematic evidence of age, race and gender disparities in U.S. Attorney decisions regarding which cases are accepted and which are declined for prosecution.  The most common reason for case declinations reported by U.S. Attorneys was weak or insufficient evidence.  Second, there is some evidence of disparities in charge reductions, but they operate in opposite directions for gender and race.  Male defendants were less likely than female defendants to receive charge reductions but black and Hispanic defendants were slightly more likely than white defendants to receive them.  Young, male, minority defendants, however, were both less likely to have their cases declined and less likely to receive charge reductions.  Fourth, both case declinations and charging reductions demonstrate significant variation across federal district court environments.  Larger districts were slightly more likely to decline prosecutions and reduce charges, but overall, few of the district-level characteristics that were examined proved to be strongly related to jurisdictional variations in prosecutorial decision-making outcomes.

In terms of policy recommendations, this research suggests that there is a strong need for improved data collection efforts on federal prosecution.  The dearth of research on prosecutors reflects a lack of quality data on their decisions-making processes and outcomes and on the social contexts in which these decisions are made.  Increased transparency, accountability, fairness and equality in federal punishment will ultimately require improved information on the essential role played by U.S. Attorneys in the multiple decision-making points that comprise criminal case processing in the federal criminal justice system.

I will need lots of time and lots of help digging into the data in the report before I can reach any truly informed conclusions about what this research most forcefully documents. But a review of just this abstract confirms my belief and concern that fully understanding the impact and import of prosecutorial discretion is a huge puzzle and challenge in the federal sentencing system.

April 17, 2014 at 10:16 AM | Permalink


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The priority, unstated by the lawyer, is the career. Rich, or famous, or in the paper, prosecute.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 18, 2014 12:28:27 AM

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