Progressive and Traditional Orientations to Prosecution: An Empirical Assessment in Four Prosecutorial Offices

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 3, March 2021, 354 –372.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2020 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
An Empirical Assessment in Four Prosecutorial
Florida International University
Loyola University Chicago
Florida International University
In recent years, accounts of the so-called progressive prosecutor have been juxtaposed against the more traditional, law-and-
order prosecutor in the United States. Yet, little effort has been made to empirically investigate these orientations among
prosecutors. In this multijurisdictional study, prosecutors were asked to rate the importance of a variety of prosecutorial
priorities. A factor analysis of these ratings indicates the existence of two distinct orientations toward prosecution. The first
reflects a progressive orientation emphasizing social justice priorities, and the second reflects a traditional orientation empha-
sizing priorities pertaining to formal aspects of case processing. Results also indicate that scoring higher on the progressive
orientation is associated with holding less punitive attitudes toward criminal defendants, whereas scoring higher on the tra-
ditional orientation is associated with holding more punitive attitudes. Discussion centers on the implications of the findings
for recent calls regarding the reform of the criminal justice system.
Keywords: prosecution; progressive; traditional; punitive attitudes; survey
The field of prosecution in the United States is evolving. As a new wave of prosecutors
take over elected offices, they bring novel visions and priorities to prosecution (Bazelon &
Krinsky, 2018; Fair and Justice Prosecution, 2018), campaigning on platforms of ending
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This work would not have been possible without Elizabeth Webster and Rebecca
Richardson. We also want to thank Maria Arndt, Dylan Matthews, and Sadhika Soor for their research assis-
tance, and Peter Lehmann for assisting with the data imputation procedures. We are very grateful to our four
partner prosecution offices located in Tampa, Jacksonville, Chicago, and Milwaukee and to the prosecutors
who contributed their time to this study. The views expressed in this article are ours alone and do not neces-
sarily represent the position of the MacArthur Foundation or our partner prosecution offices. The study was
supported by Grant G-1706-152065 from the MacArthur Foundation.Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Ryan C. Meldrum, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida
International University, 11200 SW 8th St, PCA-364B, Miami, FL 33199; e-mail:
956672CJBXXX10.1177/0093854820956672Criminal Justice and BehaviorMeldrum et al. / Progressive and Traditional Orientations to Prosecution
mass incarceration, addressing racial and ethnic disparities, and increasing prosecutorial
accountability and transparency (“The Paradox,” 2018; Sklansky, 2017a, 2017b). These
platforms are often seen as at odds with tough-on-crime policies generally advanced by
other chief prosecutors (Davis, 1998). As one veteran prosecutor describes it, these new
prosecutors “model a more proactive, prevention-oriented, and community-focused con-
ception of their role in the justice system” (Krinsky & Satterberg, 2017, para. 9). Two ori-
entations to prosecution have emerged from this discourse: the traditional prosecutor
focused on indictments, convictions, and harsh sentences and the progressive prosecutor
focused on increasing diversion, reducing disparities, and improving community engage-
ment (Green & Burke, 2012). This discourse, however, has focused largely on highlighting
the orientations of elected prosecutors (“The Paradox,” 2018; Sklansky, 2017a, 2017b).
Although a growing body of qualitative studies has uncovered variation in line prosecutors’
attitudes about their work and identity (Levine, 2005; Levine & Wright, 2012), little is
known about whether line prosecutors conform to these two orientations.
Examining line prosecutors’ orientations is critical to determine whether evolving narra-
tives of elected prosecutors reflect the views of their staff. Marked differences in prosecuto-
rial orientations may diminish staff buy-in of new reforms and limit their impact. A widening
divide among orientations within an office can also adversely affect staff morale, as line
prosecutors may feel forced or disheartened to implement policies that are different from
their views of the prosecutor’s role and responsibilities. More importantly, line prosecutors’
adherence to traditional and progressive orientations may directly or subconsciously influ-
ence their approach to a case and subsequent decision-making.
Using structured surveys administered in four prosecutors’ offices in the United States,
we evaluate the existence of traditional and progressive orientations among line prosecu-
tors. Furthermore, as a starting point for assessing the utility of these orientations in under-
standing prosecutorial decision-making, we also investigate whether they are differentially
associated with punitive attitudes held by line prosecutors. Prior to describing our study
methodology and presenting the results of our analyses, we first discuss the ways in which
the role of the prosecutor has evolved in recent decades and the juxtaposition between tra-
ditional and progressive views of prosecution. We then direct attention to prior research on
prosecutorial attitudes and the perspectives that inform the current investigation.
Scholars recognize that prosecutors in the United States occupy a unique, “dual role” in
the criminal justice system as both “advocates seeking conviction and ‘ministers of jus-
tice’” (Fish, 2017; Fisher, 1987). The former role views prosecutors as part of an adversarial
system in which the goal of prosecution is winning cases through conviction and punish-
ment of defendants. In contrast, the latter role acknowledges prosecutors are part of a sys-
tem of justice in which the goals of prosecution include protecting the rights of defendants,
representing the interests of victims and the community, and ensuring just outcomes in
cases. While this minister of justice role may involve conviction and lengthy sentences, it
also can involve diversion, dismissal, alternative sentences, or no prosecution at all (Fish,
2017; Fisher, 1987).
Critics argue that, influenced by both professional and cultural incentives, prosecutors his-
torically have focused on securing convictions and harsh sentences over other goals (Felkenes,
1975; Fish, 2017; Reiss, 1975). Prosecutors’ offices, for example, have based promotion on

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