Inside an office

An elected prosecutor explains

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Jennifer M. Joyce, the current elected circuit attorney in St. Louis, oversees an office whose prosecutors, the Center for Public Integrity found, were challenged at least 167 times for alleged prosecutorial misconduct before she took office. Defendants were acquitted or had their convictions reversed in 29 of those cases. About halfway through her four-year term, Joyce and her staff seem acutely aware of the challenge ahead as they try to improve the situation in their home city.

The task is a daunting one. The top person in the office has a difficult job that tends to become more difficult every decade. That is especially so in major metropolitan areas, where the top prosecutor must manage hundreds of lawyers and support staff with a budget that always seems inadequate, deal with horrific crimes almost every day, think about prevention as well as conviction, all the while balancing the obligation to serve justice with the unavoidable scrutiny of won-lost statistics that become a factor in re-election campaigns. The difficulty has grown in medium-sized and small jurisdictions as well.

Frank Conley, just retired as chief judge of Boone County, Mo., after three decades on the bench, recalled his two terms as the elected prosecuting attorney after his 1962 victory. "In a full eight years as prosecutor, I had two legitimate armed robberies," Conley said. "Now, we have an armed robbery every night. We were just a little town back then." Today, Columbia, the seat of Boone County and its dominant incorporated area, has a population of about 80,000. "Substance abuse and the transient nature of our communities today, where you're here today and gone tomorrow, all of that has contributed to a lot of the problems we've seen," Conley said. "There is no sense of community in the sense that we knew it 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. It is gloomy."

Joyce, whose office is accountable to 333,960 citizens of St. Louis, is well aware of those problems.

Arrests by the police come first to Joyce's warrant office, which she calls "the sociological emergency room of St. Louis." Prosecutors normally have only a day to apply for a warrant after the police make an arrest. The warrant officer typically hears from the arresting officer, eyewitnesses if any, and the victim—if the victim is alive and able to talk. Joyce's staff initiates about 4,000 misdemeanor cases and about 5,000 felony cases annually.

Then the question becomes how to handle each case. Internally, a review committee of senior prosecutors meets weekly to determine whether the evidence is legally sufficient, and to do their best to see that similar cases receive similar treatment. The review committee members work from a sheet that includes a recommendation from the prosecutor most likely to handle the trial if the case goes that far, and an independent recommendation from another prosecutor known as the "evaluator." In addition to those two opinions, the sheet reveals factual information when relevant, such as other pending cases against the accused, prior convictions, co-defendants, whether the defendant made a statement, whether anybody identified the defendant and in what manner (line-up, show-up, photo spread, acquaintance), the nature of the forensic evidence, evidentiary and other issues of law, as well as who will probably serve as defense attorney. The review committee concentrates on felonies in which the prosecutor is probably going to seek prison time, rather than probation. Many of those cases end with plea agreements. About 250 felonies each year go to trial.

Like every elected prosecutor, one of Joyce's largest responsibilities—and perhaps her greatest chance of making an impact on her office—is deciding whom to hire. Joyce explained in an interview with the Center that about half of the new lawyers joining her staff are right out of law school, while the other half have made lateral moves. There is not an official office training manual—as there is in many California jurisdictions, for example—but the new prosecutors attend weekly training sessions at the office, travel to a national advocacy institute in Columbia, S.C., sit as second chair in at least two misdemeanor or felony trials and, in many instances, are sent to specialized units for training in handling certain kinds of cases, such as sex crimes.

A high turnover rate complicates any elected prosecutor's task. Joyce recognizes that turnover might be high because of relatively meager salaries compared to the private sector, as well as hires who want a lot of trial experience quickly to make them more attractive to future employers. Some of the new hires, however, will become career prosecutors; for them, Joyce said, "It's a calling."

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