The Power of the Prosecutor: Understanding Prosecutorial Discretion in a Social Network Analysis Framework

Nadine M. Connell, University of Maryland at College Park

Discretion levied by the court system has been widely discussed and theorized about in the criminological literature, especially discretion as it has been wielded by judges and prosecutors. Traditionally, this discussion has focused on the role of judicial discretion in sentencing, a practice that oftentimes led to discrimination and disparity. More recently, however, scholars have turned their attention to the role of prosecutorial discretion, as many have argued that new sentencing guidelines enacted to eliminate or at least curtail judicial discretion have only changed the distribution, putting more power into the hands of the prosecutor. This shift of power has led to much discussion by researchers as to what effect increased prosecutorial discretion has had on the court system. Much of this research, however, has been at the aggregate level and has not examined any changes that have occurred within the courtroom workgroup, the place where, theoretically, changes between power relations would have the most impact. This research is an attempt to use social network analysis to study whether changes in workgroup characteristics have indeed occurred due to these recent reforms. Network characteristics of courtroom workgroups will be compared in two jurisdictions with different levels of prosecutorial control based on judicial reliance on sentencing guidelines.

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Updated 05/20/2006