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 said.
“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 trial.
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 mistakes.
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