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 the differences among them, because new prosecutors experience their professional role differently than their veteran colleagues do. This divergence happens because, as new prosecutors gain experience, their professional identities shift—they become more balanced over time. This Article explores the prosecutor’s professional transformation and the possible catalysts for that change.
When experienced prosecutors describe their career trajectories, they regret the highly adversarial posture they adopted earlier in their careers. While the constant quest for trials and aggressive posturing with defense attorneys may help new prosecutors build trial skills, they also cause real harm. A rookie might aggravate overcrowded trial dockets and subject defendants, victims, and witnesses to unnecessary courtroom drama and delay. Such a prosecutor might feel tempted to skirt the edges of disclosure obligations or might use overly broad categories for sentencing purposes, when more individualized judgment could accomplish more.
Seasoned prosecutors embrace a more proportional, pragmatic approach to the job, an approach we call balance. They see the true variety of cases on their dockets and calibrate their responses in individual cases, saving the most costly and severe responses for a handful of defendants. Moreover, they appreciate the value that defense attorneys add to the criminal justice system. Our interviewees offered several explanations for this transformation: increasing confidence, a legacy of 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 want to prioritize balance in their workforces. 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.