For prosecutors, it’s not about justice. It’s about power over people

January 29, 2011
By

I’m generalizing, of course. I know that there are good prosecutors and state’s attorneys out there who are interested in finding justice. I’ve even heard of one.

And yet, for the most part, particularly given the news I cover, the overwhelming view I tend to get of prosecutors is the justice-be-damned, power-hungry official who is looking to maximize convictions and make themselves look good.

A lot of this has been attributable to the drug war, where it became impossible, due to the sheer number of cases, to actually provide a jury trial for all defendants. Prosecutors soon discovered that they could ramp up their convictions without spending a day in court as long as they had enough “tools” in their arsenal to force a plea. Soon, prosecutors realized that having these “tools” made them the equivalent of God — judge, jury, and executioner, and they lobbied for more of them, with legislators eager to rush to their cause and pass more “pile-on” laws, particularly in drug cases.

Now that they have this power, they won’t easily give it up.

Case in point. Proposal to shrink drug-free school zone draws ire

A proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to shrink the drug-free zone around Massachusetts schools is drawing fire from police and prosecutors who say they need the 1,000-foot area and the tougher prison terms that go with it.

We’ve talked about these drug-free zones before. The 1,000-foot zones are absolutely ridiculous, particularly in inner cities where there’s almost no place that isn’t inside one of these overlapping zones. They do absolutely nothing to deter drug sales to children since most people don’t know if they’re in a zone or not (which may include their living room) and there are separate laws against selling drugs to children. The only purpose they serve is as a “pile-on” charge.

And prosecutors don’t even seem to care to hide that fact anymore.

Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz said prosecutors already use discretion when adding a school zone violation to a suspected drug dealer’s charges and generally don’t use the law for first-time offenders with small amounts of drugs a safe distance away from schools. But he said the law gives prosecutors leverage in getting suspected drug dealers to plead guilty to other charges and to give authorities information about larger dealers.

“Why would we want to take away that tool for prosecutors instead of giving them more tools?” Cruz said.

Maybe because justice is about something different than giving prosecutors more power. And maybe someone should let him know that the role of prosecutor is to serve the people, not to rack up conviction numbers.

Of course, we also need to do a better job of educating people about how our justice system is supposed to work, and that adding more laws and more sentences doesn’t make us safer.

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Pete Guither is the editor of drugwarrant.com

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