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.
CJR is currently working on research conducting 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). 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.
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.