On Prosecutors (Part 2): Young Prosecutors’ Syndrome

“I want to give the death penalty when somebody steals a bag of potato chips!”

 “At first it was everybody is guilty, I don’t care; if they are here they are going to jail.”

“[W]hen you come out of law school and are new prosecutors, you want everyone to do the max.”

 “Oh, a crack rock! Oh my god, they had a crack rock!”

These are some of the statements attributed to young prosecutors (or veteran prosecutors describing novices) in “The Cure for Young Prosecutors’ Syndrome,” an article based on interviews two prosecutors-turned-professors conducted with 217 state prosecutors in eight offices. Such intemperate remarks might be a sign that the speaker is suffering from the eponymous malady. YPS, according to the authors, is a serious medical condition worldview characterized by (1) a “collection of beliefs and attitudes about the importance of every case,” (2) “the constant quest for trials,” and (3) “aggressive posturing with defense attorneys.” Phrases used to describe the eager novitiates: “hardass,” “balls-to-the-wall,” “gung-ho, got to lock them up!” “guns-a-blazing,” “goes for the jugular,” “full of righteousness and vinegar.”

The cure for YPS is experience. “When describing their professional development over the course of a career, prosecutors frequently point to a growing sense of proportionality or balance, based on an appreciation for the larger context of criminal prosecution.” Veteran prosecutors, says the authors, appreciate that the world is gray rather than black and white, understand the human dynamic of criminal justice, are open to proportionality in sentencing, don’t doggedly pursue trials, and value the contributions of defense bar. The veteran “image of the prosecutor’s role is more textured than the one rookies possess. They are more cognizant and accepting of the limits of the criminal justice system and are more willing to venture beyond the pure advocacy role to achieve results.”

Three questions I had when reading this article:

  1. Is YPS really a thing?

I highlight this piece because its findings don’t really square with my own experience as a prosecuting attorney. Just one example (this isn’t an anonymous blog so I won’t get into the internal dynamics of my office): “When you look at [a case] as a young prosecutor, you look at it as a piece of paper, as a file. You don’t ever put a face behind it.” When I was new to the job, I spent good bit of my day negotiating plea agreements face-to-face with pro se defendants. Every file in fact had a face, and I was encouraged to let defendants tell their side of the story before making a plea offer. The first commandment of interacting with defendants was treat everyone with respect.

  1. If YPS does exist, what causes it?

Perhaps the noted behavior patterns, to the extent they exist, have nothing to do with prosecutors in particular. Should the actual diagnosis be Young Lawyers’ Syndrome? What young lawyer doesn’t crave experience (“the constant quest for trials”), desire the respect of more experienced opposing counsel (“aggressive posturing”), and still cling to some of the idealism that drove us to law school in the first place (“every case is important”)? Young prosecutors happen to have more opportunities than many other young lawyers to try cases, interact directly with opposing counsel, and make a show of how important they believe a case is. Maybe that’s the only reason it’s YPS, not YLS.

  1. If YPS exists, is it all bad?

“If you had a perfect prosecutor you wouldn’t need a court system. You wouldn’t need defense attorneys,” said one prosecutor interviewed. There’s a tiny kernel of truth in this sentiment, but it underplays that our system is an adversarial one, and that prosecutors are advocates. A supervisor at my office told me about a time when, as a young prosecutor, he was going to second-chair a murder trial. On the morning of trial the lead prosecutor asked him if to switch places and assume first-chair duties. My supervisor was taken aback, but understood the logic: he was younger and his passion for the case was more evident. The lead prosecutor apparently thought his enthusiasm would give the team a better chance of victory. And let’s face it, litigation isn’t afternoon tea. To have a sense of balance and proportion is important for a prosecutor, but a prosecutor must also have stamina and conviction to weather long, emotionally-fraught battles.

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