letters | sunday forum

Politicized role can detour prosecutors from mission of fairness

Giving grand jurors express powers of nullification is not the answer to the perceived problem of prosecutorial overreaching (“What’s missing from American justice,” Ideas, Feb. 3). First, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s views on democracy, our system of criminal justice is the worst ever invented — except for all the others. While not perfect, our system generally works well. As far as prosecutorial overreaching goes, the biggest problem I see is that the job of top prosecutor has become too politicized. As Leon Neyfakh’s article notes, the job has routinely become a steppingstone to higher poltical office. Consequently, decisions on charges and sentencing are based at times on political expediency rather than fundamental fairness.

In my view this does not happen often, but nonetheless it happens too often. It should never happen at all. The media fall into this mindset. Prosecutors seeking higher office are lauded in print as tough; this can contribute to politically ambitious prosecutors’ fear of being perceived or described publicly in any other terms.

What makes the job great is that it compels prosecutors to base their often-difficult decisions on what is right, regardless of whom that may offend. Sometimes this may mean seeking the maximum penalty allowed by law; other times it may mean showing leniency for someone who deserves it. In listing prosecutorial virtues, the word fair-mindedness should appear squarely at the top.

John Bradley


The writer is a former state and federal prosecutor.