Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Despite the multi-dimensional nature of the prosecutor’s work, legal scholars tend to offer a comparatively flat portrait of the profession, providing insight into two dimensions that shape the prosecutor’s performance. Accounts in the first dimension look outward toward external institutions that bear on prosecutor case handling decisions, such as judicial review or the legislative codes that define crimes and punishments. Sketches in the second dimension encourage us to look inward, toward the prosecutor’s individual conscience.
In this article we add depth to the existing portrait of prosecution by exploring a third dimension: the office structure and the professional identity it helps to produce. In addition to understanding the office’s explicit policies, new prosecutors must discover the unwritten social rules, norms and language of the profession. These informal instructions do more than simply define how a prosecutor acts; they define who a prosecutor is. Our account of prosecution also explains how different dimensions of the role interact. The structure of a prosecutor’s office helps determine the professional identity of the attorneys who work there; that identity, in turn, has the capacity to powerfully shape the prosecutor’s outputs.
To investigate this third dimension of criminal prosecution at the state level, we conducted semi-structured interviews with misdemeanor and drug prosecutors in three offices during calendar year 2010. Our discussion here focuses on two particular features of office structure – the hierarchical shape of the organization’s workforce and the hiring preference for experience – to examine differences they can make in a prosecutor’s professional self-image, particularly her orientation towards autonomy. The prosecutor’s basic attitude toward autonomy (or, conversely, the team) produces ripple effects on her career trajectory, her relationships with other lawyers and police, and the value she places on achieving consistency across cases. By viewing prosecution through this lens, we hope to offer managers of a prosecutor’s office a greater understanding of their choices, and to give the public deeper insight about the work done in their name in the criminal courts.