“Heart and Soul of a Prosecutor”: The Impact of Prosecutor Role Orientation on Charging Decisions

AuthorRachel Bowman,Jon Gould,Belén Lowrey-Kinberg
Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 2, February 2022, 239 –258.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211041645
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
The Impact of Prosecutor Role Orientation on
Charging Decisions
St. Francis College
Arizona State University
In most research, prosecutors are depicted monolithically as “interchangeable parts” rather than as individuals with varied
perspectives. Yet, the prosecution is becoming increasingly diverse, a shift that is likely accompanied by different approaches
to prosecution. Drawing upon the concepts of role orientation and job crafting, we identify three primary orientations to the
job of a prosecutor, that of the Enforcer, the Reformer, and the Advocate. Whereas Enforcers view their job as merely to apply
the law, Reformers focus on rehabilitation of the defendant, and Advocates are instead concerned with retribution for victims.
These three interpretations of prosecutors’ responsibilities translate into different approaches to charging. Furthermore, when
there is a disconnect between a prosecutor’s personal philosophy and that of their office more generally, prosecutors develop
covert ways of exercising their priorities.
Keywords: charging decision; prosecution; role orientation
Although prosecutors engage in many tasks in their day-to-day responsibilities, filing
charges is one of the most consequential. Scholarly work on charging decisions pri-
marily examines how case and defendant characteristics affect the charges filed or declined.
In broad terms, studies find that prosecutors charge cases that are most likely to result in
convictions (Albonetti, 1986; Spohn et al., 2001). In doing so, they consider legal and extra-
legal factors when selecting charges, such as the strength of the evidence and the victim–
defendant relationship (Albonetti, 1986; Frohmann, 1991; Spohn et al., 2001).
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors would like to thank the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center for access
to the data used in this project. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Belén Lowrey-
Kinberg, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, St. Francis College, 182 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, NY
11201; e-mail: bvlowrey-kinberg@sfc.edu.
1041645CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211041645Criminal Justice and BehaviorLowrey-Kinberg et al. / Impact of Prosecutor Role Orientation on Charging
Within the scholarly research on charging decisions, however, little work examines the
traits and beliefs of individual prosecutors and how their professional attitudes impact
charging. Instead, most work in this area describes prosecutors as equivalent to each other
(Levine et al., 2020; Wright & Levine, 2014), seldom recognizing that prosecutors hold dif-
ferent perspectives. Although this uniform perspective on prosecution may have been more
accurate in the past decades, the field of prosecution is becoming increasingly diverse,
particularly in terms of life experiences (McWithey, 2020) and gender (Reflective
Democracy Campaign, 2019). Consequently, today’s prosecutors are likely to have varied
perspectives that influence how they carry out their responsibilities.
In this study, we address these gaps in existing prosecution research using data collected
by the authors for the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center’s Prosecutorial Charging
Practices Project (PCPP). As one facet of this project, we conducted interviews and focus
groups with prosecutors in three mid-sized jurisdictions centered on the factors that prose-
cutors consider in making charging decisions. In this study, we draw upon the concept of
role orientation or how employees define their responsibilities on the job, as we examine
how prosecutors view their work and how this influences their charging decisions. In addi-
tion, this research addresses a gap in the extant scholarship by focusing on mid-sized offices
that are representative of more jurisdictions in the United States than those examined in
other prosecution research.
The role of prosecutors is ambiguously, and often contradictorily, defined. As Sklansky
(2016) points out, prosecutors are asked to be “zealous advocates and impartial reviewers
of the facts, crime fighters and instruments of mercy, law enforcement leaders and officers
of the court, loyal public servants and independent professionals, champions of commu-
nity values and defenders of the rule of law” (p. 477).1 Even a concept as seemingly uni-
versal as “justice” may face varying interpretations depending on the prosecutor (Bellin,
2020). The resulting ambiguity, combined with prosecutors’ extensive discretion (Medwed,
2010; Sklansky, 2016), lends itself to the possibility that individual prosecutors will not
have uniform perspectives on their roles and responsibilities. Below, we discuss these het-
erogeneous perspectives in the context of prosecutors’ demographic characteristics and
professional backgrounds, as well as the concepts of role orientation and role conflict.
Personal Traits
Several personal traits—namely, sex and race—appear to play a role in how prosecutors
approach their responsibilities. For example, female prosecutors, especially those early in
their career, may be concerned that they are viewed as less capable (Wright & Levine, 2014)
than their male colleagues. Some describe changing their personal appearance (e.g., wear-
ing glasses) to counteract this notion.
Race is another personal trait that appears to influence prosecutors’ orientation. Gilbert
(2018) describes the toll of being both female and Black in a field of predominantly White
men and was aware of how stereotypes applied to Black women might impact how they
were perceived by colleagues and jurors. Moreover, as both women and members of a racial

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