Profit-Driven Prosecution and the Competitive Bidding Process

Romero, Maybell | January 1, 2017

Prosecutors are the most powerful organs of the criminal justice system, enjoying discretion in decision-making far beyond that of law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, and judges. Perhaps due to this exceptional position, contemporary understandings and perceptions of criminal prosecutors have tended to be largely positive; evidence of such a normative understanding of the prosecutor and its role may be found from a variety of sources, from (other) law review articles to pop cultural touchstones in television and movies. The prevailing “prosecutorial norm” in the public consciousness embodies 1) a full-time government employee, 2) who devotes all of their time and professional energies to criminal prosecution, and 3) tries to somehow do or affect some vague notion of “justice.” Such norms, however, are regularly challenged and flouted when the prosecutorial function is outsourced. Although the outsourcing of nearly every function of the criminal adjudicative process has attracted great attention among scholars and policymakers, a greater critical lens must be focused on prosecutors.

The hazards of prosecutorial outsourcing have largely been neglected because existing prosecutorial scholarship focuses on the United States Attorney or district attorneys’ offices in large, metropolitan areas. Not all prosecutorial offices are created equal, however. Cities, towns, and other small political subdivisions throughout the country frequently hire prosecutors on a part-time basis through a competitive bidding process, releasing requests for proposals (RFPs) in an effort to procure bids. This practice, however, may be observed not only in small or rural municipalities, but also in cities located near larger population centers. Examples of such municipalities include Ferguson, Missouri, and Kyle, Texas. Such local governments often work with budgets that are not expansive enough to hire a full-time city attorney or prosecutor. Beyond demonstrating the qualifications, the applicant attorneys or firms vying for a prosecution contract may have to serve as good prosecutors, applications from such applicants must also demonstrate cost effectiveness by detailing what budget and compensation is required during the term of service specified by the RFP.

Although engaging in a competitive bidding process may seem like a smart way to handle the problem of governmental waste and financial inefficiencies, it introduces a host of challenges and negative externalities. This Article sheds light on the problems caused by introducing an overtly economic calculation (how cheaply and how profitably the prosecutorial function may be fulfilled) into the criminal adjudicative process. This practice not only flouts American Bar Association and National District Attorney Association prosecutorial standards, but also undermines the prosecutorial norms described above in ways that are likely to destabilize confidence—and the social cohesion born of such confidence—in local criminal justice systems. This practice has the risk, however, of expanding beyond the reach of non-metropolitan jurisdictions to larger counties, cities, and local governments as budgets continue to shrink across the board and devolution and privatization continue to be advanced as curealls to economic woes.