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January 4, 2019

"Career Motivations of State Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article authored by Ronald Wright and Kay Levine.  Here is its abstract:

Because state prosecutors in the United States typically work in local offices, reformers often surmise that greater coordination within and among those offices will promote sound prosecution practices across the board.  Real transformation, however, requires commitment not only from elected chief prosecutors but also from line prosecutors—the attorneys who handle the daily caseloads of the office.  When these individuals’ amenability to reform goals and sense of professional identity is at odds with the leadership, the success and sustainability of reforms may be at risk.

To better understand this group of criminal justice professionals and their power to influence system reforms, we set out to learn what motivates state prosecutors to do their work.  Using original interview data from more than 260 prosecutors in nine different offices, we identify four principal career motivations for working state prosecutors: (1) reinforcing one’s core absolutist identity, (2) gaining trial skills, (3) performing a valuable public service, and (4) sustaining a work-life balance.  However, only two of these motivations — fulfilling one’s core identity and serving the public — are acceptable for applicants to voice in the hiring context, even in offices that employ a significant number of former defense attorneys.  From this finding we offer a cautionary tale to job applicants as well as to office leaders, particularly chief prosecutors who want to reform office practices and to make those changes stick.

January 4, 2019 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


Interesting and new perhaps, but also all wet. I’ve done a number of job interviews for my office and we want all 4. Criminal law is the last bastion of the trial attorney and we absolutely look to hire people who want to learn this increasingly rare skill.

The authors (might they be law professors?), are especially wrong when it comes to the work-life balance. Most prosecutors in our office & our elected have families (me included). We look to hire people with ties to our community and routinely ask applicants about interests in community work. While there are always times when the balance can get out of whack (long trials), we expect and encourage our prosecutors to “keep the balance true”, to steal a well-known line.

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | Jan 4, 2019 5:58:51 PM

Cal. Prosecutor,

In fairness to the authors, they determine from interviews of actual prosecutors that interviewees cannot assert work life balance or gaining trial skills as reasons for wanting the job. Obviously your office was not one of the offices that was targeted for interviews.

What I found interesting was their lamenting the fact that prior defense experience was not as valuable as they would like. But I will say that a prosecutor applying to work for at a public defender’s office is a nonstarter in any jurisdiction that I’ve ever seen. Why I find it interesting is because they promote the military model that has lawyers practice on both sides.

The whole purpose of the article is to give a guide to reform minded electeds to hire and promote people who are not “accountability” prosecutors, but rather those who are more ambivalent about that aspect of the job. They, without basis, assert that this type is more likely to overlook police failures or misconduct. They assert, but make no case, that reforming the system to be “problem-solving” will put those offices at the “the frontier of criminal justice reform.”

Successful prosecutors have a strong accountability character without regard to who is being prosecuted. Without it, the individual prosecutor becomes another part of the system to be manipulated with whatever drives them (e.g., compassion, laziness, racism, a sense of power, a need to right past wrongs, etc.). We are constantly told about the insidious nature of bias, including implicit bias. The net effect of the authors’ desire substantially increases the opportunity for more of it.

Posted by: David | Jan 6, 2019 10:49:53 AM

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