Getting beyond Superheroes versus Trojan Horses: Career Motivations of State Court Prosecutors

46 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2017

See all articles by Ronald F. Wright

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Kay Levine

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: August 17, 2017

Abstract

As part of a broader effort to reshape criminal justice, voters in some U.S. cities recently have elected more progressive prosecutors. While these campaigns promised a change in prosecution priorities, real transformation requires commitment not just from elected chief prosecutors but also from line prosecutors, the attorneys who handle the daily caseloads of the office. But their motivations, amenability to reform goals, and sense of professional identity may be at odds with the leadership and hard to gauge from the outside.

To better understand this group of criminal justice professionals and their power to influence system reforms, we set out to learn what motivates state prosecutors to do their work. Using original interview data from more than 260 prosecutors in nine different offices, we identify four principal career motivations for working state prosecutors: reinforcing one’s core absolutist identity, gaining trial skills, performing a valuable public service, and sustaining a work-life balance. However, only two of these motivations – fulfilling one’s core identity and serving the public – are acceptable for applicants to voice in the hiring context, even in offices that employ a significant number of former defense attorneys. From this finding we offer a cautionary tale to job applicants as well as to office leaders, particularly in offices hoping to adopt a new vision of the prosecutor’s job.

Keywords: Prosecutors, Legal Profession, Community Prosecution

Suggested Citation

Wright, Ronald F. and Levine, Kay, Getting beyond Superheroes versus Trojan Horses: Career Motivations of State Court Prosecutors (August 17, 2017). Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3021429 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3021429

Ronald F. Wright (Contact Author)

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

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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