In the 1980s and 1990s, the justice system was focused on being “tough on crime” and fighting the “war on drugs.” However, recently the system has been shifting to focus on rehabilitating offenders rather than locking them up, with the goal of preventing future offenses. Many communities have begun engaging in even more preventative measures, such as investing in the community directly (rather than the prison system) and reducing over-policing, particularly of black neighborhoods. Some prosecutors have also adapted a more progressive approach to their work, and therefore it is important to examine how this approach influences the justice system.
In “Progressive and Traditional Orientations to Prosecution”, Meldrum, Stedem, and Kutateladze (2020) compared traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors to progressive “social justice” prosecutors. They surveyed four prosecutors’ offices, asking questions about prosecutorial orientation and punitive attitudes. The results showed that there was a distinction between progressive and traditional prosecutors. More progressive prosecutors held less punitive attitudes towards defendants, while more traditional prosecutors held more punitive attitudes. Progressive prosecutors prioritized reducing incarceration rates and challenging racial disparities, while more traditional prosecutors prioritized convictions and harsher sentences. However, these orientations are not mutually exclusive – there was a weak, positive correlation between the two groups, indicating that there may be some overlap between the two ideals.
Meldrum and colleagues (2020) also found that prosecutors who were themselves racial minorities demonstrated more progressive orientation, suggesting that diverse composition of prosecutorial offices matters. Interestingly, the chief prosecutor in all four offices self-identified as progressive-minded. However, the results also demonstrated that there were still traditional prosecutors practicing, thus supervisors in these four locations might not be fully driving the culture of the office. Thus, if we want change, it might be necessary to seek a more systemic change where progressive approaches are valued and rewarded.
With a shift in society’s values and recognition that a traditional, tough-on-crime approach might not be an effective way of reducing crime (and instead just leads to greater incarceration and larger systemic problems), encouraging a more progressive crime-reduction attitude within the system could be beneficial. Although this study only involved 4 offices and was correlational, it also identified the possibility of coming together. Specifically, the fact that there was overlap in ideology between traditional and progressive prosecutors suggests that they are not as far apart as they may seem. This might indicate that all prosecutors have some degree of traditional perspective (probably what many defense attorneys would argue) and are therefore unchangeable. But it could also suggest that it is possible to shift these ideals by focusing on the shared values. More research should be done on how traditional vs. progressive prosecutors influence crime rates within their communities, but also how training prosecutors to focus on preventing crime to begin with (if possible) and reducing recidivism might improve outcomes overall.