Author ORCID Identifier

Kay Levine 0000-0002-9422-232X

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Criminal prosecutors, Professional identity, Office structure, Hiring strategy, Division of labor, Organizational features, Institutional environment


Despite the multidimensional nature of the prosecutor’s work, legal scholars tend to offer a comparatively flat portrait of the profession, providing insight into two dimensions that shape the prosecutor’s performance. Accounts in the first dimension look outward toward external institutions that bear on prosecutors’ case-handling decisions, such as judicial review or the legislative codes that define crimes and punishments. Sketches in the second dimension encourage us to look inward, toward the prosecutor’s individual conscience.

In this Article we add depth to the existing portrait of prosecution by exploring a third dimension: the office structure and the professional identity it helps to produce or reinforce. In addition to understanding the office’s explicit policies, new prosecutors must discover the unwritten social rules, norms, and language of the profession and of their particular offices. These informal instructions do more than simply define how a prosecutor acts; they define who a prosecutor is. Our theory of prosecution also explains how different dimensions of the role interact. The structure of a prosecutor’s office helps determine and bolster the professional identity of the attorneys who work there; that identity, in turn, has the capacity to powerfully shape the prosecutor’s outputs.

To investigate this third dimension of criminal prosecution at the state level, we conducted semi-structured interviews with misdemeanor and drug prosecutors in three offices during the 2010 calendar year. Our discussion here focuses on two particular features of office structure—the hierarchical shape of the organization’s workforce and the hiring preference for experience—to examine differences they can make in a prosecutor’s professional identity. In particular, the prosecutor’s basic attitude toward autonomy (or, conversely, the team) produces ripple effects on her relationships with other lawyers and police and on the value she places on achieving consistency across cases. By viewing prosecution through this lens, we hope to offer managers of prosecutors’ offices greater power to shape the work of their attorneys and to give the public deeper insight about the work done in its name in the criminal courts.

First Page


Publication Title

Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology