MacArthur Foundation awards FIU $1.7 million to study prosecutor behavior

Photo provided by MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. Research aims to improve efficiency while reducing racial and ethnic disparities

In the criminal justice system, prosecutors wield considerable power over who is charged with a crime, what charges defendants face, and whether or not they are eligible for plea agreements.

To better inform prosecutorial decision-making – and reduce the risk of racial and ethnic disparities – the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded FIU’s Department of Criminal Justice a grant to develop more effective and efficient prosecutor practices.

The two-year project – funded by $1.7 million and coordinated through the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge – is a joint effort with Loyola University Chicago that will examine prosecutor data and policies in four cities nationwide: Chicago, Jacksonville, Milwaukee and Tampa. The grant is the largest ever awarded to FIU by the MacArthur Foundation.

The project, led by criminal justice professor Besiki Kutateladze and housed within FIU’s Center for the Administration of Justice, stems from the growing recognition that prosecutorial offices need to become more data-driven to ensure effectiveness and fairness.

“We believe this is one of the most important prosecutorial research initiatives happening in the U.S. right now,’’ said John F. Stack Jr., dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. “It is essential that we develop data-driven strategies to keep communities safe but also to ensure our criminal justice systems are effective, efficient and fair.’’

Through its Safety and Justice Challenge, the MacArthur Foundation has invested more than $100 million in criminal justice reform and research to reduce over-incarceration in the U.S., with a particular focus on the disproportionate impact the issue has on low-income and minority individuals.

“We knew going in that the problem of jail overuse and misuse has been a long time in the making and that no quick fix is likely,” said Laurie R. Garduque, director of the MacArthur Foundation’s criminal justice programs.

“Yet, we cannot help but find encouragement in the commitment of our partners. We expect that this work will ultimately help to change the expectations and demands of the public for a fair, effective and equitable system of justice.”

Among other things, researchers will examine prosecutors’ case management systems to identify what data is being collected, how new data can be captured and how prosecutors can analyze the information to improve performance and better respond to community needs.

For example, if a community has identified gun violence or gang activity as areas of concern, prosecutors would be able to better track factors such as conviction rates, recidivism and effectiveness of diversion programs, then make adjustments to policy or resource allocation as needed.

Another goal is to increase transparency of prosecutorial decision-making for the public, by examining issues such as treatment of vulnerable populations like the mentally ill and homeless; instances of prosecutorial misconduct or wrongful convictions; and racial and ethnic disparities in pretrial interventions and plea agreements.

“We need to prosecute those who need to be prosecuted. We need to engage those who need to be engaged, and we need to be smart enough to know the difference,’’ said Melissa Nelson, state attorney for the 4th judicial circuit in Jacksonville.