Prosecutorial misconduct and the criminal justice system, examined

The Quattrone Center’s review of prosecutorial misconduct claims finds a lack of transparency and accountability throughout the Pennsylvania criminal justice system.

In a recent study of prosecutorial misconduct allegations in Pennsylvania state and federal courts over a 17-year span, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found a lack of systemic transparency, significant challenges regarding access to information, and a lack of functional accountability mechanisms and deterrents throughout the state’s criminal justice system.

A close up to the an ornamental scale in an office with law books on shelves behind it.

Hidden Hazards” details the findings of the Center’s review of 4,644 opinions issued between 2000 and 2016 containing 7,207 separate claims of prosecutorial misconduct. Quattrone researchers found two categories of misconduct responsible for over half of the claims identified in the study: improper withholding of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors and improper comments made by prosecutors during closing arguments.

Other prevalent categories of prosecutorial misconduct allegations included making improper remarks during trial and presenting false evidence.

The study also found that a significant percentage of prosecutorial misconduct claims go unaddressed by courts. Of the 7,207 identified claims of prosecutorial misconduct analyzed in the report, courts allowed 1,775 to remain unaddressed. Of the 5,432 claims that were addressed, courts found prosecutorial misconduct in 204.

Moreover, even when misconduct was discovered, researchers found virtually no functional corrective or accountability mechanisms—only four Pennsylvania prosecutors received official public discipline for prosecutorial misconduct during the period studied.

“One of the main takeaways from the project was just how difficult it is to identify cases of prosecutorial misconduct using publicly available sources,” says Ross Miller, assistant director of the Quattrone Center and co-author of the report. “With so few charged cases ever making it to trial, and therefore avoiding full discovery or any meaningful fact-finding process, the available records of prosecutor conduct are pretty slim. This report provides a floor for instances of prosecutorial misconduct.”

Read more at Penn Law News.