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Prosecutors Look to Research To Help Address Difficult Challenges

A panel of prosecution experts has pinpointed priority needs of the profession and ways that research might deliver solutions. New science-based tools could help prosecutors make fair, smart charging decisions, better use data, and attract needed staff.
Date Published
February 12, 2020

The job of the prosecutor, always arduous, faces mounting systemic challenges, such as the need to manage large volumes of complex digital evidence; difficulty recruiting and retaining diverse and specialized staff; the hard job of shielding certain witnesses from intimidation and tampering; rising caseloads; and the growing burden of an opioid crisis that has devastated many communities.

Experts on prosecutorial policies and practices are calling for development of new research pathways to help guide prosecutors toward objectively evaluated, enhanced methods of bringing criminals to justice.   

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) convened a working group of prosecutors and prosecutor affinity group representatives to identify the most pressing challenges confronting prosecutors today as well as priorities for future research that could help mitigate some of those challenges. Composed of 10 state-level prosecutors and seven representatives of related justice entities, the working group met in 2018 in a workshop organized on behalf of NIJ by the RAND Corporation and RTI International. The group identified priority concerns for prosecutors and research initiatives needed to address them.

Key needs identified by the working group are:

  • Identifying better ways to improve staff recruitment, training, and retention.
  • Improving the exchange of data and other information among agencies, their partners, and the community.
  • Identifying promising practices to prevent and respond to witness intimidation and tampering.
  • Conducting research into the most promising practices for collecting and disclosing data on officer misconduct and disciplinary history and related issues.
  • Conducting more research about engagement of the community by prosecutors and whether different combinations of problem-solving and litigation strategies can influence crime reduction.

Detailed in the new report “Prosecutor Priorities, Challenges, and Solutions,” prepared by RAND, the needs and solutions identified by the working group fall into six general categories: staffing and resources; digital information; organizational data; litigation strategies; accountability; and partnerships and collaboration. The working group assessed both the importance of each identified need and the probability of successfully addressing it. The majority of the needs were assigned high importance. Thus, “the main factor differentiating needs that clustered at the top of the prioritization was the perceived ease of meeting them,” the report said (see table 1).

Table 1. Top-Tier Prosecutorial Needs, by Expected Value

PROBLEM OR OPPORTUNITY

ASSOCIATED NEED

CATEGORY

The amount of data that prosecutors need to examine to do their job has been growing significantly over time, while the level of individual [prosecutor] responsibility for missing potential evidence and important information is also growing.

  • Develop a protocol for inexpensive and efficient prosecutor training.
  • Conduct research into the effects of inadequate staff on justice outcomes.
  • Conduct research into the factors that determine adequate staffing levels.

 

Staffing and resources

Prosecutor retention is a pervasive problem.

  • Conduct research to better understand the factors that influence retention.

Staffing and resources

Data exchange among agencies, their partners, and the community is often inefficient, inadequate, or both.

  • Conduct research to highlight existing promising strategies that have already been used to make small improvements in data exchange (i.e., identify the key elements for initial exchange).

Partnerships and collaboration

Witness intimidation and tampering is pervasive in the criminal justice system and directly affects outcomes.

  • Conduct research into the most promising practices for responding to witness intimidation and tampering.

 

Litigation strategies

Agencies are having trouble recruiting new prosecutors with gender and ethnic diversity.

  • Conduct research to identify the most promising practices that improve interest in pursuing careers in prosecution from a broader population of candidates.

Staffing and resources

Agencies have different approaches to determining the most effective ratio of prosecutorial staff and support staff.

  • Conduct research to identify the most promising practices for determining the most effective ratio of prosecutorial staff and support staff.

Staffing and resources

Source: Daniel S. Jackson, Camille Gourdet, Duren Banks, Michael G. Planty, Dulani Woods, and Brian A. Jackson, “Prosecutor Priorities, Challenges, and Solutions” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), 11.


With respect to prosecutor interactions with witnesses, the working group report said, “engaging with witnesses in a manner that both encourages them to be fully cooperative and does not put them at risk was identified as a top-tier priority.”

In all, the report identified 28 prosecutorial needs, organized in priority order in Tiers 1-4. Examples of identified issues relegated to Tier 2 priorities but nonetheless deemed to be of “high importance,” warranting new research, include but are not limited to the following:

Litigation Strategies 

Plea and diversion policies

  • Issue: Considerable uncertainty over best case-resolution strategies.
  • Research need: Review of the effectiveness of plea and diversion options currently in use. 

Community engagement

  • Issue: Need for a better understanding of use of a combination of litigation and problem-solving strategies.
  • Research need: Law enforcement engagement in the community and whether it can reduce crime.

Accountability 

Officer misconduct

  • Issue: Identifying, tracking, storing, and disclosing officer misconduct and discipline issues — relating to officers’ credibility as witnesses and reliability of prosecution evidence — is difficult and time-consuming.
  • Research need: Most promising practices for collecting and disclosing officer misconduct and discipline records.

Disclosure of exculpatory and other evidence to defendants

  • Issue: Collecting and reporting data under disclosure obligations is difficult and time-consuming.
  • Research need: Most promising practices for collecting and reporting disclosure obligations.

Digital information

       Storage of large quantities of digital evidence (including video from body-worn cameras and audio data files)

  • Issue: Storage demands are a strain on the system.
  • Research need: Identify most promising and cost-effective practices for long-term storage and retrieval of digital evidence.

Transcription of large volumes of video and audio evidence

  • Issue: Transcription demands for discovery, evidence presentation, and record keeping are costly and time-consuming.
  • Research need: Identify the most cost-effective technologies for producing automated or semi-automated transcripts.

Organizational data

       Third-party data management for prosecutor offices

  • Issue: Off-the-shelf data management products are often inadequate for prosecutors, are not easily tailored to agency needs, and raise issues regarding retrieval of data by the public agency at the end of the contract.
  • Research need: Identify and publicize most promising practices for internally developed case management systems that would be broadly applicable across prosecutorial offices.

Partnership and collaboration

  • Issue: Healthy relationships between prosecutors and researchers spur innovation.
  • Research need: Highlighting the most promising practices for academic-prosecutorial partnerships.

In its conclusion, the report said that collaborations between researchers and prosecutors not only help prosecutors prioritize cases, “they can help others outside the legal world better understand and make sense of the judicial system, as well as better understand and appreciate the important work that prosecutors conduct every day.”

About this Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2013-MU-CX-K003, awarded to the RAND Corporation. This article is based on the grantee report “Prosecutor Priorities, Challenges, and Solutions” (2019) by Daniel S. Lawrence, Camille Gourdet, Duren Banks, Michael G. Planty, Dulani Woods, and Brian A. Jackson. The prosecutor workshop informing the grantee report and this article, convened by RAND and RTI International on behalf of NIJ, was part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, a project with RAND, the Police Executive Research Forum, RTI, and the University of Denver.

National Institute of Justice, "Prosecutors Look to Research To Help Address Difficult Challenges ," February 12, 2020, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/prosecutors-look-research-help-address-difficult-challenges
Date Created: February 12, 2020