In criminal law, prosecutors hold a crucial power known as “prosecutorial discretion." It allows them the authority to make important decisions at different stages of a case, such as:
This article breaks down the concept of prosecutorial discretion. It explores the ins and outs of this fundamental legal principle. Specifically, it examines its impact on fairness, ethics, and the broader goals of the evolving criminal justice system.
The Basics of Prosecutorial Discretion
Prosecutorial discretion refers to a prosecutor's authority in a criminal case. This authority includes:
- Charging decisions
- Plea bargains
- A case's overall direction within the legal system
This discretion allows prosecutors to tailor their approach to individual cases.
Charging Decisions and Plea Bargains
The prosecutor's office decides which criminal charges to file against a criminal defendant. Prosecutors weigh many factors, such as:
Plea bargains are a common outcome of prosecutorial discretion. A plea bargain involves the defendant agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser charge. In exchange, they often receive a lighter sentence. This process helps manage caseloads, reducing strain on the court system. It also allows for a more efficient resolution of criminal cases.
Legal Safeguards: Reasonable Doubt and Defense Attorneys
In any criminal case, innocent until proven guilty prevails. Prosecutors must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defense attorneys play a crucial role in their client's case. For example, they must ensure their clients receive a fair trial. They must also challenge the prosecution's evidence and arguments. This adversarial process ensures a balanced legal system.
For more information, explore FindLaw's section on criminal procedure.
Disparities and Biases in Decision-Making
Despite the safeguards, biases can still influence prosecutorial decisions. Issues such as race, socioeconomic status, and prior criminal history may affect the prosecutor's choices. Recognizing these biases is essential for promoting a fair and just legal system.
The Role of Law Enforcement and Probable Cause
Law enforcement agencies play a pivotal role in the criminal justice process. When someone suspects or reports a crime, law enforcement officers conduct investigations. They do so by gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and collecting information. Their goal is to establish whether there's a reasonable basis to believe a crime occurred.
Police officers may proceed with an arrest when the evidence supports probable cause. The arrest is significant as it involves depriving an individual of their liberty. Officers must base their arrest on more than just suspicion. A proper arrest requires a reasonable belief backed by tangible evidence.
After an arrest, the case moves to the prosecutor's office. Prosecuting attorneys play a critical role by reviewing the evidence law enforcement provides. Then, they determine if there's enough substance to proceed with formal charges.
The Supreme Court and Prosecutorial Decisions
The United States Supreme Court plays a significant role in shaping prosecutorial discretion. Its decisions establish guidelines for prosecutors. These emphasize the importance of:
They also act as a check on the prosecution's power and ensure compliance with the Constitution.
Have More Questions About Prosecutorial Discretion? Ask an Attorney
If you're facing charges but believe the government has unfairly targeted you, you can make a case for selective prosecution or some other form of prosecutorial misconduct. Whether this defense is available to you or not, having an experienced legal professional is always important. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today for a confidential assessment of your case. Experienced defense counsel can provide you with legal advice regarding the following:
- Specific legal advice for when the government charges you with a serious crime
- General information about grand jury proceedings, pretrial hearings, and plea bargains
- The exercise of prosecutorial discretion relating to juveniles charged with crimes
- How a district attorney may view your case and how to prepare your legal defenses
If the government has charged you with a crime, do not delay in contacting a criminal defense attorney.