Session: Examining Legal Praxis Among Prosecutors and Public Defenders and Their Capacity Toward Systems Change (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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230 Examining Legal Praxis Among Prosecutors and Public Defenders and Their Capacity Toward Systems Change

Friday, January 22, 2021: 3:45 PM-4:45 PM
Cluster: Crime and Criminal Justice
Symposium Organizer:
Sophia Sarantakos, MSW, LCSW, University of Chicago
Matthew Epperson, PhD, University of Chicago
The public at large became acutely aware of the crucial role of local prosecutors, both in contributing to mass incarceration and the movement to decarcerate, beginning with the activist-led ousting of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in 2016. Since then, the so-called progressive prosecutor movement has picked up great momentum, with constituents across the country voting out incumbent, traditional-minded district attorneys in favor of reform-minded replacements. While the importance of local prosecutors in the movement to decarcerate has rightly been highlighted, the role of public defenders and the overall health of the public defender system has been sorely overlooked. Our adversarial criminal legal system presumes two equal sides, but criminal legal researchers and actors have long known about the resource disparities between prosecution and public defense. A holistic discussion focused on long-term court-based criminal legal system transformation must include both prosecution and public defense.

The three papers in this symposium provide important insights into the inner workings of prosecution and public defense, and how social work and legal scholarship can continue to advance decarceration efforts. The first paper examines two recidivism outcomes¬—arrests and convictions—for participants in a large misdemeanor deferred prosecution program. Deferred prosecution programs are diversion programs led by prosecutors, and they are given express license to make nontraditional decisions. This study finds that diversion programs led by prosecutors, like deferred prosecution, hold considerable promise as a light-touch intervention for individuals at early stages of criminal legal involvement.

The second paper also explores deferred prosecution programs and focuses on a comparison between two large programs in two different states. This paper examines the thinking that undergirds the responsive discretionary decisions (i.e., decisions that aim to benefit the defendant) made by prosecutors within both programs, and if/how the nontraditional logic present can be leveraged to advance efforts to decarcerate. Findings show considerable differences between each program’s responsive decisions, and that the imaginative thinking of one program’s prosecutors has the potential to be a powerful tool for criminal legal system transformation.

The final paper in the symposium brings the pressing issue of public defense to the table. This piece compares the institutional design of public defense to that of large law firms and challenges the existing structure of the public defenders office. The researcher argues that an organizational shift from the current model of public defense to that of large law firms can help alleviate caseload issues, prevent high turnover rates, and reduce public defender burnout

The papers in this symposium contain crucial insights into the promotion of decarceration. By utilizing mixed method approaches, these studies advance the empirical knowledge base of understudied segments of the criminal legal system and bring two siloed yet inextricably connected segments of the system together. Findings emphasize the ways that social work and legal scholars can work together to impact this grand challenge by guiding more responsive and appropriate interventions and systems-level changes.

* noted as presenting author
Recidivism Outcomes Among Participants in a Misdemeanor Deferred Prosecution Program
Epperson Matt, University of Chicago; Rachel Garthe, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Leon Sawh, MPH, University of Chicago; Sophia Sarantakos, MSW, LCSW, University of Chicago
The Individualistic Public Defender Problem
Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, JD, University of California, Davis
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