(Ad)ministering Justice: A Prosecutor's Ethical Duty to Support Sentencing Reform

46 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2013 Last revised: 17 Apr 2014

Date Written: September 19, 2013


This Article stakes out an ethical argument in favor of prosecutorial leadership on sentencing reform. Prosecutors have a duty as “ministers of justice” to go beyond seeking appropriate conviction and punishment in individual cases, and to think about the delivery of criminal justice on a systemic level ― promoting criminal justice policies that further broader societal ends. While other authors have explored the tensions between a prosecutor’s adversarial duties and “minister of justice” role in the context of specific litigation, few have explored what it means to be an “administer” of justice in the wider political arena. The author sets forth a new construct of what is required for a prosecutor to be a neutral, nonpartisan “administer of justice” in her legislative and public advocacy activities.

Applying this paradigm to the ongoing national debate about sentencing reform, the author argues that a prosecutor’s administrative responsibilities as a leader in the criminal justice establishment and her fiduciary responsibilities as a representative of the sovereign should compel her to join in the effort to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for most drug and non-violent offenses. Not only are mandatory sentences in most instances inefficacious and unduly coercive, but they allow for an arbitrary and discriminatory application that is essentially unreviewable by courts. The author distinguishes his argument against mandatory minimum penalties from the so-called “Smart on Crime” movement, by grounding a prosecutor’s duty to promote sentencing reform in ethical reasoning as opposed to pragmatic or cost-savings considerations.

A second important question the author addresses in this Article is how an ethical prosecutor should make plea bargaining decisions in the face of mandatory minimum prison terms that are retained by the legislature. Even with political support from some of this nation’s most conscientious prosecutors, state legislatures are unlikely to repeal or cut back on all mandatory minimum sentences. Some mandatory prison terms — for crimes such as murder, repeat offense OUI and aggravated sexual assault — will likely stay on the books notwithstanding current calls for reform and the robust advocacy recommended above. In the second half of this Article, the author addresses the prosecutor’s ethical conduct in charging and plea bargaining crimes that carry mandatory prison terms. While there has been substantial legal scholarship to date that has decried the manner in which mandatory minimum penalties have transferred sentencing discretion from judges to prosecutors, beyond that descriptive lament there has been very little attention paid to how exactly prosecutorial discretion might be more meaningfully channeled and constrained. The author argues that prosecutors could mitigate many of the harsh and unjust consequences of mandatory minimum sentences through internal self-regulation; that is, by instituting and publishing clear office policies governing when line prosecutors may dismiss or reduce charges that carry them. He proposes specific guidelines that state prosecutors should adopt to ensure a consistent and even-handed application of mandatory minimum penalties, so that line prosecutors do not abuse the substantial discretion that has been afforded them in the plea bargaining process.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal procedure, professional responsibility, legal ethics, sentencing policy

Suggested Citation

Cassidy, R. Michael, (Ad)ministering Justice: A Prosecutor's Ethical Duty to Support Sentencing Reform (September 19, 2013). Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4, 2014, Forthcoming, Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 314, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2328274

R. Michael Cassidy (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States
617-552-4343 (Phone)

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