The Cure for Young Prosecutors' Syndrome

65 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2014 Last revised: 24 Dec 2014

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Kay Levine

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: February 1, 2014


Although legal scholars treat prosecutors like interchangeable parts, we argue – based on interviews and surveys of over 200 state prosecutors in eight offices – that scholars should be alert to differences among them, because new prosecutors perceive their professional roles differently than their veteran colleagues do. As new prosecutors gain experience, their professional identity shifts: they become more balanced. This article explores the prosecutor’s professional transformation and its possible causes.

When experienced prosecutors describe their career trajectories, they regret the highly adversarial posture they adopted earlier in their careers. They even give a name to this early collection of beliefs about the importance of every case, the constant quest for trials, and the aggressive posturing with defense attorneys: “young prosecutors’ syndrome.” While these attitudes may help new prosecutors build trial skills, they also cause real harm. A rookie might goad defendants into trials to prove the prosecutor’s professional worth, aggravating crowded trial dockets and subjecting defendants, victims and witnesses to unnecessary courtroom drama and delay. Such a prosecutor might also skirt the edges of disclosure obligations.

Seasoned prosecutors embrace a more restrained, pragmatic approach to the job. They see the true variety of cases on their docket and calibrate their responses in individual cases, saving the most costly and severe responses for a handful of defendants. Moreover, veteran prosecutors appreciate the value that defense attorneys add to the criminal justice system. Our interviewees offered several explanations for their transformation toward balance: increasing confidence, lessons learned from past mistakes, the ability to distinguish small crimes from large, and life experience.

Because the institutional features of the prosecutor’s office can facilitate or impede a new prosecutor’s professional transformation, we offer suggestions for chief prosecutors who aim for balance in their workforce. These measures include hiring prosecutors with a mix of experience levels, exposing new prosecutors to case studies of situations that most often lead to regrettable prosecutor choices, and organizing attorneys into units that place senior and junior prosecutors alongside one another on the same teams. We also explain how law schools can plant the seeds of balance before graduation.

Suggested Citation

Wright, Ronald F. and Levine, Kay, The Cure for Young Prosecutors' Syndrome (February 1, 2014). Arizona Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1065, 2014; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-277; Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 2405137. Available at SSRN: or

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5727 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

Kay Levine (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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