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Fixing Disparate Prosecution

Shima Baradaran Baughman and Jensen Lillquist. Full Text.

America’s system of public prosecution is broken. Prosecutors who charge harshly or disparately are shielded from any consequences or recourse, and defendants are left with few options. This asymmetry in power results in prosecutors singlehandedly maintaining mass incarceration in the United States and leads to some states incarcerating more people per year than entire countries. Prosecutors in the United States are permitted to charge with little supervision or guidance other than to follow the law and “seek justice.” Many choose to charge the highest number of crimes possible, while others choose to exercise restraint and label themselves as “progressives.” But there is no solicitude for individuals who are subject to the whims of an individual prosecutor who might decide to throw the book at an individual rather than exercise mercy and drop charges for a minor first-time offense. Both normative and structural changes are needed. But proposed normative changes—such as progressive prosecution or evidence-driven prosecution—rely on prosecutors themselves to change and lack any enforcement mechanism. Likewise, proposed structural reforms are often too unrealistic to seriously contemplate. While we support these reforms rhetorically, this Article proposes a much simpler, potentially more pragmatic reform. Each defendant should be legislatively provided with a private right of action against disparate prosecution. In other words, a defendant believing she has been charged or sentenced unfairly or out of step with others in a particular jurisdiction could challenge the prosecutorial action and shift the burden to the prosecutor to justify charges. This straightforward proposal could shift the balance of power and create the right incentives to force prosecutors to check their decisions, and in turn result in less draconian charging throughout the United States.