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Improving Prosecutorial Decision Making: Some Lessons of Cognitive Science


Alafair S. Burke


Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law


William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 47

Abstract:     
This Article draws on cognitive psychology to develop a new explanation for prosecutorial misconduct. Traditionally, commentators have clothed the study of prosecutorial decision making in the rhetoric of fault. They have attributed overcharging, undisclosed exculpatory evidence, and convictions of the innocent to bad prosecutorial intentions and widespread prosecutorial wrongdoing. This fault-based lens colors both the description of the problem and the recommended solutions. In the language of fault, the problem is a culture that values obtaining and maintaining convictions over justice. The solution is to change prosecutorial values through, for example, more stringent ethical rules and increased disciplinary proceedings and sanctions against prosecutors.

In this Article, I attempt instead to explain prosecutorial decision making from a cognitive perspective. I argue that even virtuous prosecutors can make normatively inappropriate decisions that result, not from flawed values, but from limits in human cognition. Prosecutors make what appear to be irrational decisions because all human decision makers share a common set of information-processing tendencies that depart from perfect rationality. In comparison to a fault-based approach, a cognitive description of the problem complicates the road for corrective action. If prosecutors fail to achieve justice not because they are bad, but because they are human, what hope is there for change?

In three Parts, this Article attempts to explain how cognitive bias can affect the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and to suggest some initial reforms to improve the quality of prosecutorial decision making. Part I summarizes four related cognitive phenomena: confirmation bias, selective information processing, belief perseverance, and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. Part II explores how these cognitive biases might adversely affect the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Part III proposes a series of reforms that might improve the quality of prosecutorial decision making, despite limits on rationality.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 46

Keywords: prosecutorial discretion, prosecutorial decision making, prosecutorial misconduct, Brady, law and psychology

JEL Classification: K14, K41

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Date posted: April 26, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Burke, Alafair S., Improving Prosecutorial Decision Making: Some Lessons of Cognitive Science. William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 47. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=707138

Contact Information

Alafair S. Burke (Contact Author)
Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )
121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States
516-463-4243 (Phone)
516-463-4800 (Fax)

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