What Is Prosecutorial Discretion?
Prosecutors, as the person responsible for filing and advocating for charges, have a certain amount of discretion in deciding what charges they may file. This is called prosecutorial discretion, and it allows them to examine the strength of their case and the circumstances in order to decide what charges to pursue. Prosecutorial discretion may be used for “wobbler” cases when the charges could either be felony or misdemeanor. It may also be used to downgrade someone to a lesser charge in appropriate circumstances.
Prosecutorial Discretion and Ethics
A prosecutor holds a position with a lot of power; therefore, they are bound by ethics that are even stricter than ethics attorneys must adhere to. The prosecutor represents an impartial government, so while they are often the opposing party to the defendant, they are not arguing against the defendant, but rather for justice. Their duty is to ensure that the guilty do not escape justice and the innocent are not punished. This is why they are granted prosecutorial discretion.
Prosecutorial discretion must be exercised consistently in order to achieve fairness. A prosecutor can use their discretion to ensure a case goes faster and does not waste the time of the court by pursuing charges that are easier to win (rather than choosing more substantial charges that they do not have sufficient evidence for.) Prosecutorial discretion is as important to the justice system as it is to the defendants.
For example, if the prosecutor notices at any point in the case that they do not have sufficient evidence for a case, they must notify the court immediately. They must also use their prosecutorial discretion to not pursue cases that they know they do not have sufficient evidence for.
Prosecutorial discretion does not just apply to criminal cases; it applies to any prosecutors, no matter the type of case. For example, prosecutors handle immigration cases on behalf of the government. These prosecutors are granted prosecutorial discretion to ensure that ICE prioritize the limited government resources in trying and deporting criminals. Prosecutorial discretion allows ICE to overlook known illegal immigrants in favor of arresting and trying illegal immigrants who are involved in illegal activity. ICE prosecutors may use their prosecutorial discretion to not block appeals of law-abiding non-citizens or even to ask the immigration judge to close the case.
The Importance of Prosecutorial Discretion
The reason prosecutorial discretion is so important is that it allows prosecutors to offer people deals in exchange for information. They may use their prosecutorial discretion to pursue lesser charges or even to ask the judge to take into account the defendant’s cooperation when sentencing. The cooperation the prosecutor may ask for is information that leads to the arrest of other criminals or testifying against another person in custody.
Prosecutorial discretion can be used to reward good behavior in defendants, such as helping law enforcement and the prosecutor. It may also be used to dangle a carrot in exchange for a defendant taking a plea bargain. Most of all, prosecutorial discretion is used to protect law enforcement and the government’s limited resources. Information or testimony can reduce the time spent collecting evidence or arresting other criminals and can reduce the length of trials. If a prosecutor is able to get a defendant to plead guilty by offering them an enticing plea bargain, then the court has more time to dedicate to other cases.