Getting beyond Superheroes versus Trojan Horses: Career Motivations of State Court Prosecutors
46 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2017
Date Written: August 17, 2017
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
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