In early August, Florida governor Ron DeSantis suspended elected state attorney Monique Worrell, a Democratic prosecutor overseeing the state’s Orange and Osceola Counties. DeSantis described Worrell’s performance as “derelict,” perhaps thinking of when a 19-year-old repeat offender murdered a woman, returned to the scene of the crime later that day, and killed a journalist covering the prior murder and a nine-year-old girl on the scene with her mother. The individual had prior offenses of aggravated battery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, grand theft, and other weapons violations; according to Florida’s mandatory-minimum sentencing statute, he should’ve been imprisoned for decades. But Worrell’s office ignored these requirements.
When a prosecutor refuses to prosecute dangerous felonies effectively, crime soars. After progressive Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner took office, the City of Brotherly Love saw felony drug sentencings drop 72 percent and felony weapons sentencings drop 53 percent. As former prosecutor Thomas Hogan has shown in an analysis, Philadelphia has endured 75 additional homicide deaths for each year that Krasner’s policies have been in place.
De-prosecution is akin to a willful version of a serious criminal-justice problem that many American localities face: insufficient prosecutorial capacity. Many areas that have avoided electing progressive prosecutors nonetheless confront deep shortages in their district attorney offices. In Maricopa County, Arizona, a high number of vacancies resulted in a 20 percent reduction in felony filings by prosecutors. In Harris County, Texas, prosecutors handled more than 1,500 felony cases each per year, inevitably undermining their effectiveness in individual cases. The generally accepted standard for a defense attorney’s caseload is capped at 150 felonies per year—one-tenth of the caseload in Harris County.
Whether a prosecutor’s office fails to pursue felony charges because of resource constraints or by choice, the result is the same: safety suffers. But a policy response exists to address both issues. With the creation of a “special prosecutor,” public-safety-minded statewide officials can provide support (to those offices that want it) or pressure (to those that don’t) and ensure the efficient prosecution of felonies.
This legislative session, Missouri considered such a proposal. House Bill 301 would have created the position of special prosecutor, an appointee of the governor with jurisdiction over some violent crimes. That prosecutor could have helped resource-strapped rural localities, while working to shore up safety in crime-ridden St. Louis, where de-prosecutor Kim Gardner worked for several years. The bill was not considered until late in the session, however, and was not brought to a vote.
Adapting Missouri’s framework, a creative policymaker might create a catch-all solution to prosecutor’s offices that underperform, for whatever reason. Under this modified proposal, a special prosecutor could be temporarily appointed by the governor or attorney general if, say, the homicide rate in a county is twice that of the state, or if the elected attorney requests assistance. The special prosecutor would work only on specific crimes—perhaps including homicides, weapons violations, and carjackings—with the goal of reducing the caseload burden on the local attorney.
The special-prosecutor proposal would solve two familiar problems. Imagine that a populous urban county elects a new prosecutor; formerly a defense attorney, he reduces felony filings drastically. The county experiences a general rise in crime—carjackings become rampant, drug use explodes, and homicides spike—but the prosecutor insists that he is doing a good job and maintains his seat in low-turnout elections. Now, however, the governor recognizes that something needs to be done. Because the homicide rate in this county is twice that of the state overall, the governor or attorney general decides to send in a special prosecutor with first jurisdiction. This special prosecutor takes legal action against the crimes overlooked by the elected district attorney, habitual criminals are soon removed from vulnerable communities, and the public again feels safe to venture downtown.
Or imagine another prosecutor in a rural, cash-strapped county that is seeing a spike in homicides. Though he wants to combat the sudden rise in crime, he already faces a personnel shortage. So he asks the governor or attorney general to send in a special-prosecutor task force. When these attorneys arrive, they work under the direction of the local prosecutor to focus on the most serious crimes. Relieved of a heavy burden, the prosecutor can now focus on clearing a backlog, pursuing justice, and filling vacancies—all while using the state as a backstop.
Whether through neglect or lack of resources, prosecutorial offices cannot be allowed to fall into disuse. Suspending prosecutors who refuse to do their jobs may be justified, but it won’t do anything directly to punish or discourage crime. Empowering governors or attorneys general to appoint supplementary prosecutors is a commonsense way to attack the problem at its source.
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