Author ORCID Identifier

Kay Levine 0000-0002-9422-232X

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State prosecutors, Career motivations, Public service, Absolutist identity, Career narratives


Because state prosecutors in the United States typically work in local offices, reformers often surmise that greater coordination within and among those offices will promote sound prosecution practices across the board. Real transformation, however, requires commitment not only from elected chief prosecutors but also from line prosecutors—the attorneys who handle the daily caseloads of the office. When these individuals’ amenability to reform goals and sense of professional identity is at odds with the leadership, the success and sustainability of reforms may be at risk.

To better understand this group of criminal justice professionals and their power to influence system reforms, we set out to learn what motivates state prosecutors to do their work. Using original interview data from more than 260 prosecutors in nine different offices, we identify four principal career motivations for working state prosecutors: (1) reinforcing one’s core absolutist identity, (2) gaining trial skills, (3) performing a valuable public service, and (4) sustaining a work-life balance. However, only two of these motivations— fulfilling one’s core identity and serving the public—are acceptable for applicants to voice in the hiring context, even in offices that employ a significant number of former defense attorneys. From this finding we offer a cautionary tale to job applicants as well as to office leaders, particularly chief prosecutors who want to reform office practices and to make those changes stick.

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The George Washington Law Review