Prosecutor Workloads Need More Research

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This article by Center for Justice Research founding director Howard Henderson appeared in the Houston Chronicle January 23, 2020.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office contends it needs more staff to ensure due process and increased diversion options. Critics and primary challengers to District Attorney Kim Ogg  contend that doing so would reverse justice reform efforts, believing more prosecutors equate to more convictions. If the DA stopped “overzealous prosecution,” they say, then additional prosecutors would not be needed. On the other hand, the DA says that defendants suffer long waits before trial, and overworked prosecutors cannot properly seek justice or even play a constructive role in reforms such as diversion. The County Commissioners Court denied the DA’s broad request but have supported her request when aligned with an immediate need.

We, the Center for Justice Research (CJR) at Texas SouthernUniversity, released a research brief comparing the budgets, caseloads and staffing levels of the country’s largest county prosecutor offices. Given the highly sensitive nature of our report and challenges to our findings, we released are joinder to clarify the need for further study.

Despite having roughly 2,400 district attorneys in this country, very few have sought to determine the appropriate number of cases a district attorney could effectively handle. We took upon this challenge and put forth some practical recommendations.

Most counties do not share the necessary data to make useful comparisons of prosecutor caseloads. Harris County is an exception in that it makes a good amount of data publicly available, as do Maricopa County, home ofPhoenix, and Cook County, with Chicago in its borders. We dove into the records of these counties and looked at funding, staffing, arrest rates and how cases are processed.

The more we looked, the more we understood that prosecutor caseloads should not be examined in a vacuum. Prosecutors can only be assessed if and when they have the optimal level of resources with the proper controls to ensure that they don’t erode the gains of the current justice reform movement. Any prosecutor additions must be aligned with agreements not to further exacerbate racial, ethnic or class inequities.

The impact of large workloads and inadequate funding create an obvious problem for prosecutors and the community they serve. Research demonstrates that overworked prosecutors have the potential to increase the likelihood of extended case processing time, error, plea bargains, stress-related burnout and turnover. Significant trial delays increase in case processing time and excessive use of plea bargains — which can result in injustice for defendants and for victims — are just some of the consequences that could result from overworked prosecutors. The minority community bears the brunt of these consequences as Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to face conviction due to a criminal justice system that often disparages those unable to afford effective representation.

First, no blanket understanding of prosecutor caseload needs can be determined until they maximize the use of diversions and outright declinations. Second, prosecutor needs must be understood in the context of the needs of the public defender, so as to not provide an unfair advantage to the prosecutor. A final determination of prosecutor needs must have all of the key stakeholders at the table so that we don’t erode the movement towards mass de-carceration.

One solution is to establish a caseload determination matrix by which prosecutors can determine their appropriate caseload, respective of local nuances. Simultaneously, there is a need for more collaborative approaches to decision-making in the justice system and a commitment to the continued use of pre-charge diversion programs.

Prosecutors, in this era of ‘mass-decarceration,’ must ensure that they exercise their unbridled discretion in an unbiased manner. At the same time, society cannot afford for prosecutors to be understaffed, overworked, underfunded or misaligned with the least prohibitive, most effective approaches.

The DA’s office and its critics need serious, evidence-informed debate and comparative analyses of equally-situated prosecutor offices, all of which we have found infiltrated with inconsistency.

Harris County is not alone. We found many others across the country seeking better standards. This April we will be hosting a forum to get closer to that goal along with attendees from the Association of ProsecutingAttorneys, Texas Civil Rights Project, Philadelphia and Fort Bend CountyDistrict Attorney Offices, University of Virginia Law School, R-Street, VeraInstitute, the National District Attorney’s Association, UT Dallas' Director ofSocial Impact and the National Black Prosecutor’s Association.

At the end of the day, identifying prosecutor needs in the age of mass de-carceration must be about ensuring constitutional protections for everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and, most importantly, socio-economic status.

By finding a balance between their ability to reduce the local criminal justice systems footprint and protecting public safety, HarrisCounty has an opportunity to transform its criminal justice system into a more equitable design and to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

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Howard Henderson is the director of the Center for Justice Research and professor of justice administration in the BarbaraJordan - Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas SouthernUniversity.

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The Center for Justice Research is a nonpartisan research center devoted to data-driven solutions for an equitable criminal justice system. Our primary focus is to produce innovative solutions to criminal justice reform efforts by utilizing an experienced group of researchers working to understand and address the current challenges of the criminal justice system.