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Careers in Criminal Justice: Law - The Prosecuting Attorney

prosecutors offices assistant office

Most law graduates interested in prosecution seek work at the state court level in the local prosecutor's office. Office titles for local prosecutors include city attorney, district attorney, county attorney, prosecuting attorney, commonwealth attorney, and state's attorney. City attorneys generally prosecute minor criminal violations classified as misdemeanors under local ordinances or state criminal statutes. Prosecutors at the county or multi-county (district) level prosecute felony offenses (and, in some jurisdictions, serious misdemeanors). While some local prosecutors' offices hire law graduates to work in their appellate divisions, the bulk of law graduates entering the field work as trial-level assistant prosecutors. Larger prosecutors' offices also have specialized units dealing with particular types of crime such as narcotics, juvenile prosecution, domestic violence, and sex crimes. Most entry-level attorneys do not work in the specialized units but may be promoted there after several years on the job.

In larger jurisdictions, the local prosecutor's office hires a number of law graduates each year and typically will begin interviewing candidates in the fall of their third year of law school. Candidates are asked to take part in a series of interviews focusing on their knowledge of criminal procedure, their ability to handle complex ethical issues, and their dedication to public service. District attorneys offices generally look for candidates with internship or clinical experience in a district attorney's office or legal experience in other governmental offices. They also look for students who enjoy public speaking and can think on their feet, wrestle with difficult problems, and make sound decisions. Skills in trial advocacy or moot court experience are also looked upon favorably. Some of the larger prosecutors' offices provide a week to several weeks of training before sending new assistants to work. However, much of the training in both small and large prosecutors' offices occurs on the job. For law graduates who want to get a significant amount of early responsibility and substantial trial practice, the prosecutor's office is a very good place to work.

The salaries for entry-level assistant prosecutors vary widely and depend largely upon the size of the county and office. Salaries in 1998 ranged from a high of $51,000 to as low as $23,000 (National Law Journal, 1 June 1998, p. B13). In larger offices, new assistant prosecutors are required to make a three-year commitment. Since advancement in the prosecutors' office is limited, many assistant prosecutors move on after three years. Many go on to private practice as criminal defense attorneys, others enter politics or work at a firm in a different practice area.

Some assistant prosecutors work at the state attorney general's office. In most states, the attorney general has jurisdiction to prosecute violations of state criminal laws, and deals with issues of statewide significance such as organized and white collar crime, drug trafficking, fraud and embezzlement, and criminal enforcement of environmental protection laws. Assistant State's Attorneys generally appear regularly in state court, but also spend a great deal of time conducting investigations and drafting motion papers.

Prosecutors can also work at the federal level in Washington, D.C., or in the local United States Attorney's office. United States Attorney's offices are divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice, and are responsible for the prosecution of most federal crimes. (Some federal prosecutions are handled by Department of Justice attorneys based in Washington.) Crimes that are uniquely federal include evasion of federal income taxes, counterfeiting, and immigration violations; however, many other federal crimes (especially drug offenses) are also violations of state law that could be prosecuted by state authorities. For the most part, Assistant U.S. Attorneys are hired three to six years out of law school.

Prosecutors occupy a unique position in the criminal justice system in that they exercise a considerable amount of discretion. From the initial arrest to the final disposition, prosecutors determine which defendants are prosecuted, the type of plea bargains that are struck, and the severity of sentences imposed. Before a case comes to trial, prosecutors may decide to accept a plea bargain, divert suspects to a social services agency for an alternative to incarceration program, or dismiss the case entirely for lack of evidence. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson believed that the prosecutor has "more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America" ( Jackson, p. 31). This broad discretion occasionally can lead to abuse, such as when a prosecuting attorney decides not to prosecute a friend or to overzealously prosecute an enemy. But such behavior is not the norm.

The tasks of an assistant prosecutor are varied. They interview victims, witnesses, police officers, and experts, conduct fact investigations, counsel victims, and negotiate pleas. Furthermore, they do such administrative work as issuing subpoenas, monitoring lineups, ordering lab reports, conducting hearings and trials, and drafting motions. Caseloads of large prosecutors' offices are quite high, and assistant prosecutors must learn to juggle competing demands. Beginning prosecutors will deal with less serious crimes such as trespass, petty theft, and misdemeanor assaults before they advance to burglary, car theft, robbery, rape, and homicide.

Prosecutors are unique not only because of the breadth of their discretion, but also because their client is the state rather than the individual victim. In this role, the prosecutor must act on behalf of the public good. The Model Code of Professional Responsibility states that "[t]he responsibility of the public prosecutor differs from that of the usual advocate; his duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict" (Model Code of Professional Responsibility, EC 713). While called upon to act as a zealous advocate, the prosecutor must also ensure that a defendant's trial is fair and that the proceedings appear fair to the public. This dual role of protecting the process and securing convictions can be difficult, and prosecutors often struggle to determine which role takes priority in a given situation. The stresses of this conflict as well as the enormous caseloads held by many prosecutors leads to significant burnout. However, many prosecutors find great satisfaction in their jobs and see themselves both as crusaders against crime and champions on behalf of crime victims.

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