This project came out of the local and national discussions on the need for more prosecutors and where or not more equates to more prosecutions of the poor, minority and voiceless.
Heavy workloads for prosecutors can lead to burnout, more plea bargains, and increased errors, which all contribute to delays, wrongful convictions, and other inequities in the criminal justice system. In 2019, the Center for Justice Research published a report on prosecutor workloads, staffing, and budgets for the seven largest counties in the country. Harris County, Texas, despite being one of the largest counties in the country, has the least number of full-time employees and the lowest operating budget among our sample. Relatedly, prosecutors in Harris County are overburdened with cases. This is concerning, as Harris County has the third largest criminal justice system in the country and, like counties across the country, exemplifies grave racial disparities in its criminal justice system.
Building off of our prior research, we currently have funding for a future study in which we will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of prosecutor diversions in four states, focusing on addressing racial/ethnic disparities and outcomes beyond recidivism. Diversion programs are an alternative to incarceration, particularly for low-level, nonviolent offenses (e.g., rehabilitation instead of jail time for illegal drug possession). Cases for these types of offenses bog down prosecutor workloads and overpopulate incarceration facilities, with people of color largely overrepresented. Increased use of diversion programs could allow prosecutors more time for other cases, with the opportunity to lead to more equitable outcomes both in the cases they take to trial and in the diverted cases that keep more nonviolent individuals out of incarceration facilities.
The Harris County District Attorney used our 2019 report to support their request for obtain a temporary funding increase from the Harris County Commissioners Court. Some criminal justice reform advocates may be concerned about increasing prosecutor budgets, and it is true that many factors must be considered to ensure funds are used to provide for public safety, as well as equality within the criminal justice system. Thus, while sufficient funding is needed to ensure prosecutors can do their jobs, accountability measures are also needed to ensure prosecutors work for the community and protect human rights and racial and economic equality.
In our advocacy for a prosecutor workload standard and overall sufficient resources for both prosecutors and defenders, we published a rejoinder to our original prosecutor workload report to make our position undeniably clear:
In all that we do, we work toward reducing mass incarceration, increasing public safety, and ending racial and class-based disparities in the criminal justice system. Solving the issue of prosecutor workloads, budgeting, and staffing can aid in reaching these goals.
We in the criminal justice space need a national standardized method for determining proper prosecutor caseloads, and this determination must consider many factors to ensure accuracy, efficiency, and equality in criminal justice proceedings. These factors include the prosecutor to population ratio, the number of prosecutors available, the amount of time spent on each case, and the numbers and types of diverted, processed, and declined cases.
We need to better understand how to determine prosecutor caseloads alongside public defender caseloads to foster more collaborative efforts toward criminal justice reform.
Prosecutors need to do what they can to reduce mass incarceration, in part, by increasing their use of diversion programming. This will decrease unnecessary arrests and criminal processing and can additionally provide community members with support and rehabilitation services, rather than incarceration, which has proven negative effects on numerous health, economic well-being, and recidivism factors.