Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Ensuring Effectiveness of the Prosecution Function through Assessment and Best Practices
By Christina Mariscal, Deputy Project Director, and India Hall, Training and Technical Assistance Team Lead, Bureau of Justice Assistance National Training and Technical Assistance Center
Prosecutors play a critical role in the criminal justice process by serving as representatives of the federal, state, or local government in adjudicating criminal offenses. Like other components of the criminal justice system, prosecutors pursue justice with the best interests of public safety in mind. Discretion allows prosecutors to determine the appropriate legal response to each case brought before them, which involves reviewing the charges against an individual arrested by the police or deciding whether an individual should be charged with an offense. With this discretion comes great responsibility and high expectations from numerous stakeholders, including the public.
Over the past several decades, the role of the prosecutor has evolved and expanded beyond traditional expectations to include a proactive, collaborative approach to justice. Today, prosecutors and law enforcement commonly work together on training and crime prevention initiatives, and more prosecutors are embracing alternatives to sentencing, as well as specialty courts and engagement strategies to improve safety and communication. As the role of prosecutors has changed, increased caseloads, ethical issues and culture, and science and technology – including digital and DNA evidence – are impacting their ability to prosecute violent crime.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) offers training and technical assistance (TTA) to prosecutors’ offices to assess their capacity to prosecute violent crime cases, identify programming gaps, and make recommendations to enhance processes. By leveraging a skilled pool of providers, BJA NTTAC’s TTA resources aim to provide actionable recommendations across the prosecution landscape to prioritize violent crime cases and identify strategies to strengthen cases and increase convictions.
Through the Prosecution Assessment TTA Program, BJA NTTAC partners with highly qualified providers to offer the following assistance to requesting agencies:
- Identify and gather relevant crime data;
- Engage appropriate staff and partners in the assessment process;
- Observe internal case briefings and meetings with federal, state, and local partners;
- Review policies, laws, and procedures;
- Review past prosecutions of violent crime and gun cases, from arrest through trial;
- Identify gaps and needs in the current prosecution process; and
- Evaluate and incorporate promising models and evidence-based practices into each phase of the training or technical assistance solution.
Case Study: Prosecution Assessment in Shelby County, Tennessee
In February 2019, the Shelby County, Tennessee Office of the District Attorney General (SCDAGO) requested assistance from BJA NTTAC for an independent expert to conduct a holistic review of its operations and prepare a report detailing recommendations and best practices in the following general areas: office organization and structure; office culture and environment; case processing and quality of work; and training and evaluation. SCDAGO is responsible for prosecuting all juvenile and adult violations of state criminal law that occur in Shelby County, Tennessee. SCDAGO is also engaged in a variety of efforts beyond the courthouse tailored toward prevention, intervention, and enforcement, with the goal of enhancing public safety and the lives of the citizens of Shelby County. The demands on SCDAGO and the role it plays in the community have increased significantly over the past 25 years; however, the structure, organization, and functions of the office have not changed substantially during that time.
BJA NTTAC selected the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence (PCE) to provide technical assistance to SCDAGO. Led by Kris Hamann, Executive Director and former career prosecutor with the Manhattan, New York District Attorney’s Office, PCE is a national organization that works with prosecutors in offices of all sizes to improve the criminal justice system. PCE supports statewide, prosecutor-led Best Practices Committees that proactively work to develop responses to current and emerging criminal justice issues.
PCE’s work with SCDAGO involved using research to analyze and offer recommendations to increase efficiency and enhance the performance of the agency. PCE conducted an in-depth examination of the existing prosecutorial practices within SCDAGO and compared the findings to national standards and best practices. Based on the findings, PCE recommended overall operational and staffing changes for the office. In the short term, this technical assistance will enable SCDAGO to make structural and functional advancements to its office. In the long term, this technical assistance will help SCDAGO develop a protocol to implement best practices and more effectively meet the increased demands placed on its office.
SCDAGO representatives have indicated that PCE’s assistance has been very beneficial. SCDAGO has proactively advanced its mission of enhancing public safety and initiated the process of implementing PCE’s recommendations. Although the technical assistance and support is still underway, SCDAGO is making enhancements to their current processes that will contribute to the agency’s success well into the future.
For a summary of TTA support available to state, local, and tribal prosecutors’ offices and other justice agencies, access the Prosecution Assessment TTA Program flyer.
If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to prosecution assessment, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.
If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.
Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.