Prosecutorial Discretion: Organizational, Inter-Organizational and Extra-Organizational Constraints

Glenn S. Coffey, University of Tennessee - Knoxville
Sam Zahran, University of Tennessee - Knoxville
Anne Carroll, University of Tennessee - Knoxville

To explain persistent disparities in punishment by race and social class, researchers have focused on prosecutorial discretion. Such research exaggerates the systemic impact of prosecutorial discretion by downplaying organizational, inter-organizational, and socio-political factors that strongly circumscribe the decision-making prosecutors. This paper examines the organization, inter-organizational, and socio-political constraints on proseutorial discretion.

After a brief history of the public prosecutor, an explication of Weber's concept of social action and consdquent notion of legal formalism is provided as the foundation of the current legal system in the United States. The goals and basic tenets of bureaucracy are described before a reiew of the organizational context of the criminal justice system. The topics of prosecutorial discretion and the institutional factors that constrain discretion in the criminal justice system is then explored. After a case study review, the paper summarizes the institutionalization of these constraints and the permanence of impact on the decision-making prosecutors. We conclude that there are several substantial organizational, inter-organizational and socio-political constraints that significantly impact, if not dictate, the actions of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system.

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Updated 05/20/2006