Feds to Punish Wayward Prosecutors

Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week the creation of a new unit in the DOJ, specifically organized to bring swifter and more meaningful penalties to prosecutors accused of misconduct. USA Today uncovered 201 cases where federal prosecutors had broken ethics rules or laws, often without any repercussions. The new DOJ office was created, at least in part, due to the news organization’s investigation.

In many cases of federal prosecutorial misconduct, guilty people ended up walking free or perhaps even more tragic—innocent people ended up in prison.

AG Holder admitted current procedures led to lengthy, drawn out investigations into misconduct and often no penalties or penalties that weren’t applied consistently. He spoke out in defense of the majority of federal prosecutors, stating most do their job with the utmost integrity, but vowed to do more when those top law enforcers fell short of their ethical and legal obligations.

The office will investigate allegations of misconduct and make referrals to state bar associations. Called the Professional Misconduct Review Unit, they will be responsible for disciplinary actions that were previously handled by supervisors, often other federal prosecutors. Critics state the DOJ’s new unit isn’t enough and should include independent legal experts, not just more of the same personnel, likely to ascribe to the commonly held notion that prosecutors should always “win”.

Prosecutors are considered the top law enforcement officers. They represent the law before the courts and choose who faces charges, what charges they face, and often what sentence they get. Sure a judge has the final say in approving these matters but prosecutors make the final recommendations.

But rather than being a truly adversarial system—where each side gets equal play and say in the courts, too often the prosecutor is cast as the “good guy” and the defense as the “bad guy”, leading to an overwhelming view that the good guy should “win”.

Whether you’re talking about supposedly unbiased crime labs that operate as an extension of the police department or officials at the state and local levels that allow prosecutors to go unchecked, the attitude that somehow the prosecutors’ offices are the home team and the defense the unwelcome visitor is truly upsetting and misguided.

Serious violations are often attributed to “mistakes” and their results as “unintended consequences”, somehow excusing any sort of accountability. Small steps like the creation of the new DOJ office might be a step in the general “right direction” but are just that—small.

About David Matson