Minimizing Errors of Justice: The Role of the Prosecutor

Brian Forst, The American University

The legitimacy of the criminal justice system is undermined by errors of justice, two major categories of which are errors of due process (involving harms imposed on innocent persons and overly punitive sanctions imposed on offenders) and errors of impunity (involving failures to bring culpable offenders to justice). This paper considers evidence that points to the prosecutor as a source of those errors. It then asks what prosecutors can do to minimize the social costs associated with errors of justice--through better systems of accountability, more coherent articulation of the goals of prosecution, and greater awareness of the impact of policies and strategies governing case screening, post-arrest, investigations and plea bargaining on errors of justice and other goals of prosecution: pursuit of justice, reduction of crime, efficiency, evenhandedness, celerity, quality of life in the community, and legitimacy. The effects of recent developments in prosecution are also considered, including community prosecution and the loss of information about what happens to felony arrests and why. This paper is part of a larger project to identify the nature and sources of criminal justuice errors and find remedies.

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Updated 05/20/2006