Prosecutorial misconduct undermines the legitimacy of the justice system, says the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, reported The Crime Report.
While a number of states have adopted measures to
address instances where prosecutors fail to provide timely evidence that could
prevent the conviction of innocent individuals or neglect other rules of
procedure, the aberrant conduct is largely “invisible” to public scrutiny in
most jurisdictions across the country, said the Center in a new report.
“American citizens lack the ability to make even the
most cursory inquiry into whether their prosecutors operate within the rules,”
the report asserted.
Researchers at the Quattrone Center, based at the
University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, created what they said was a
unique dataset of 4,644 opinions in which allegations of misconduct were raised
in the more than 1.5 million judicial opinions published between 2000 and 2016
by federal and state courts in Pennsylvania.
They identified 7,207 separate claims of
prosecutorial misconduct over that 17-year period. Courts failed to address
1,774 of those claims. In the remaining 5,432, misconduct was found in just 204
cases―or less than 4 percent.
But the apparent low figure, they suggested, was
“almost certainly a substantial undercount.”
And, they argued, there is little reason to suggest
that Pennsylvania was atypical.
“We have found no jurisdiction in the United States
that regularly assembles and publishes information about how frequently
allegations of prosecutorial misconduct are made, how often they are upheld,
and what actions are taken when misconduct has been identified,” the report
“Without such basic information, communities are
left with vague reassurances that misconduct is rare; that when it occurs, it
is rapidly identified and addressed; and that no additional oversight or
accountability measures are needed to improve the criminal justice system and
ensure that good prosecutors will continue to serve our system, while bad
prosecutors are weeded out.”
One likely reason for the undercount is that the
cases examined in their database only corresponded to cases which went to
The majority of Pennsylvania criminal cases are
resolved through pretrial bargaining—when prosecutors strike deals with
defendants to lower sentences in response to a guilty plea. Allegations of
misconduct during the pretrial period never appear in final opinions.
“What became clear during our review is that the
true extent of prosecutorial misconduct eludes a full analysis due to a number
of systemic factors keeping such incidents from scrutiny,” said the report.
The 85-page report, entitled “Hidden Hazards:
Prosecutorial Misconduct Claims in Pennsylvania, 2000-2016,” recommended ten
steps that Pennsylvania legislators and judicial bodies could take both to
develop a more comprehensive database on prosecutor misconduct, and to hold
prosecutors accountable for “intentional” and “unintentional” courtroom
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