So You Work for a Prosecutor?

Column by Jim Davies.

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[Author's Note: Readers who know someone working in a prosecutor's office might usefully refer him or her to this article. It's adapted from one of a series at the new web site, which aims to help government employees lead honest lives.]

Getting bad guys off the street is surely a good and noble objective, a vital task in a civilized society. So what can possibly be dishonest about working for a prosecutor?

Nothing here is meant to suggest that if you hold such a job, you're giving  it less than your best effort. Problems arise, though, if we consider the reasoning in this comparison with the Mafia; you are helping prosecute thieves, while being paid with stolen money! The fact that your employer has solemnly declared that theft to be non-theft (he calls it "tax" as if a change of name made any difference) has no effect at all on the morality of the matter--on its honesty.

However, that's only the start of the story. There's a great deal more dishonesty in a prosecutor's office, in which you are taking part.  Let's look at this in two stages: first, at the standard of honesty commonly followed according to the rules that exist, and secondly, let's assess whether those rules are themselves nearly honest enough for a just society.

1. The Existing System

The idea of today's justice is that behavior must conform to laws, and that punishment will follow any breach of those laws. It's a system of retribution, not restitution. Your work is to help bring the right people to court, where their guilt is determined and punishment ordered. Nobody expects you or your boss to be infallible--that's why the court exists, and why the presumption of innocence is in place, and why your boss has the "burden of proof." But it certainly is expected that he will be honest, and never prosecute a person he believes to be innocent, just to add to his score of wins, nor conceal any evidence he found that would tend to exonerate the suspect.

As you know, that doesn't always happen.

Take a read of Wikipedia's account of the Innocence Project. The raw numbers of long-term prisoners who have been found innocent by DNA testing is not large, compared to the total--but each one of those 289 people so far represents a gross injustice. Some of them fell victim to over-zealous police, some to malicious or careless witnesses, some to juries eager to get home and watch TV. But some had their lives ruined because a prosecutor pressed his case harder than he knew he should have.

DNA testing can reverse convictions in only a few cases. Two million people are currently behind bars, and that technique cannot be applied to the vast majority of them. Yet some are perfectly innocent, and they are there because of a prosecutor's determination to win, supported by you or someone like you. Winning is, as you know, the name of the game; it advances careers, bloats budgets, boosts morale. And sometimes, a person is prosecuted because the case is winnable, rather than from a genuine belief in his guilt. For that dishonesty, a terrible price is paid.

Sometimes the media do a good job of exposing this kind of injustice, and "Dateline NBC" is prominent. A few days before this was written, for example, the program related the case of Nancy Smith, an Ohio mother who was prosecuted with Joseph Allen and convicted of child molestation. There was never a shred of truth in it. Plenty of blame can be spread around, but the prosecutor bears a heavy share--all the more so because, after a judge  reversed Smith's conviction following 14 years in prison, he appealed that decision, so as to get her back in prison rather than admit that a gross error had been made.  Is that "honest"? Silly question.

You'll know that plea bargains make up about 90% of a prosecutor's work today. This is because the lawmakers have drastically reduced the discretion open to judges to temper justice with mercy in sentencing; so if a case goes to trial and your boss wins, the judge has little flexibility to impose a heavy or a light sentence as he might prefer. So instead, your boss can re-introduce flexibility--too much, perhaps--by doing a deal instead. Plea bargains can also save a huge amount of time. One view maintains that if every case went to trial, the entire justice system would collapse, grossly overloaded.

This puts far too much responsibility on the prosecutor; he is in effect becoming jury and judge as well as advocate for a guilty verdict. He is neither trained nor paid for that, and the extra power he can wield provides huge temptations for abuse and corruption.
Take two alleged crimes, identical and with very similar bodies of evidence. Johnson is guilty and knows that if convicted, he will face 20 years in prison, so he takes the offered deal and serves five. Jameson is innocent and trusts the justice system to find him so; he turns down the plea deal but is found guilty, so he is caged for 20 years; the innocent man is punished four times more than the guilty one.

Or the converse can happen, as with Rudy van Lin in 1998. He sold an investment without a government license. He was a Dutch national, and did the selling on a Dutch cruise ship in international waters--yet he was charged with breaking an American law and advised that if found guilty, he could be in prison for 40 years. He was offered a deal: plead guilty, serve five. What a tough choice! He took the deal. Perfectly innocent (albeit mistaken; the investment turned out to be bogus, hence very damaging to all concerned including him), yet caged like an animal for all that time. Is that just? Is it honest? Yet this is the system you support, every day.

2. A Truly Just System

This would bear little resemblance to what prevails today even if the existing system functioned with perfect honesty. That's because real justice is not about crime and punishment at all, but about restoring damaged rights--about restitution, not retribution. Doe deliberately injures Roe; a just resolution of that is for the justice system to order Doe to compensate Roe, to the extent needed to repair all the damage--including his emotional distress and the costs of bringing the case. Government--a third party!--should not even enter the picture. 
In such a system of real justice, there would not be "prosecutors" as such, at all. There would be attorneys available to represent the litigants for a fee, and in the Roe v. Doe case, the one representing Roe would have the burden of proving Doe's actions; but he would be paid initially by his client (or his client's insurer) rather than by an uninvolved third party such as government.  Justice would right the wrong. That's what justice is for. That's honest, and is the kind of justice system that will exist in the coming free society.  You are honest; so can it be right to spend your working days supporting a dishonest system?

Suppose in that environment that Mrs. Smith and Mr. Allen had been accused of molesting small children, and suppose that the (barely credible) testimonies had prevailed. The court would have ordered Smith and Allen to compensate the children, and possibly that they be watched and supervised (perhaps with electronic anklets) to make sure their future conduct endangered no others. Nobody would suffer imprisonment. Subsequently, new evidence would have emerged (as it did) and a new case would overturn the first one, requiring a reversal of the payments made; again, nobody would be caged. No system is infallible so that kind of error, and error correction, might still take place--but meanwhile nobody's liberty would have been savaged, as it was in today's system of alleged justice. 
Yet today's is the environment you work in, the system you support. What does it do for your self-respect? Self-esteem is a vital part of life. We all need a purpose, a raison d'être, a way to feel pride in what we have been able to accomplish, a basis for ambition to achieve more in future.

Working for government undermines your basis for self-esteem. Make a clean break; offer your skills elsewhere. Get an honest job--even if at first you have to take a pay cut. You'll not regret it; at life's end you will look back in pride and pleasure, and be able to say, "I helped build that!" 
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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Suverans2's picture

"...real justice is not about crime and punishment at all, but about restoring damaged rights--about restitution, not retribution..."

With what is between these quotation marks, I couldn't agree more, JD.

I would add to that, that if a man steals a dollar from someone, he is consenting, by that act, to have a dollar taken from him, thus the equivalent of two dollars would be given to the man whose natural right was violated. As the violation of natural rights increases, so does the "restitution". This would act as a deterrent, not only to him, but to any others who might be considering violating someone else's natural rights to life, liberty and justly acquired property.

Glock27's picture

How are you proposing this one dollar was stolen,by actual theft by neighbor or political theft. Though they may be synonamous they are two entirely different things. Merely because you have Liberty here does not mean you have Liberty. This may work in a Utopic society, but is inoperable in reality. What is your solution to the problem and how would you implement it. Right now as I am viewing it what you propose is no different than what is occuring right now and has occurred since Wilson and Roosevelt, maybe even further back.

Glock27's picture

You make some very interesting points. I have always been negative towards prosecutors since I personally faced one hell bent on prosecuting my then 17 year old son to 15 years in prison for the possession of a double edged knife of which he had no knowledge of as it was consealed in my vehicle of which I let him use on a date. It took a lot of effort to garner the evidence to shed any light on the truth that he had no knowledge of the knifes presence. The Prosecutor merely wanted a conviction, but when the evidence was reviewed by the judge he concured that the Prosecutors efforts were dishonest attempts to put someone in prison. My son was still charged, but it was probation and community service and loss of hunting privilages for three years.
However, in our given society we are currently faced with how do we change it? I believe we as a people must come up with a solution, but what I fear is that our solution would amount to the suppression of someone elses natural right to believe as they do. I believe in carrying a concealed weapon and do (legally), but there are others who disagree with this and wish to abscound every hand gun and long gun because they have a natural belief that this is the true solution. It's not I know it and I believe they know it also. Any way I liked your thoughts and gives me something to ponder over for awhile.

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks, Glock27 for your kind words. (Hmm, so Glock makes a 27mm? Some cannon...)

Your son was very fortunate to escape so lightly from their clutches. Perhaps he has a very dedicated Dad.

"How do we change it?" is _the_ #1 question, the only one that really matters, congrats on posing it. There is no magic wand to wave, but my answer begins at

Then more recently and as an adjunct to that school, I made the web site mentioned at the head of this article,

The premise beneath each is that government will survive for as long as people are willing to work for it, but not a moment longer. Therefore, if we reckon humanity will be safer and richer without it, government employees must be persuaded to quit their jobs. All of them. Elections are, of course, a complete waste of effort; they merely change the zookeepers from time to time.

I've little hope of persuading those who lead it - they are too hopelessly intoxicated with power. But they depend absolutely on those who work for them as supporters. Hence here, my remarks were addressed to those who "Work for a Prosecutor."

eugenedw's picture

Jim wrote: "Elections are, of course, a complete waste of effort; they merely change the zookeepers from time to time."

-Quite correct, but it has occurred to me that there is one type of election in which it may well be very meaningful for anarchists to vote, namely an election where the option "None of the above" is stated explicitly on the ballot. It may be very interesting to see the results of such an election. I would be interested to hear opinions on this, because it seems to me it may be meaningful for anarchists campaign for such ballots. Not that the government is likely to ever do it that way (imagine the horror when "None of the above" wins an election in a landslide!). But the campaign itself will raise awareness of how hollow a thing democracy is.

Glock27's picture

I concur with your comments, however, what government employee is going to quit one of the highest paid positions? That is surely an Alice-in-wonderland-ideal. I certainly know if I had wife And kids and I had one of those jobs I wouldn't quit. I do not believe the human being is as moral as we would hope. Evil lurks in the heart of all men. Never in my life would I have believed a Catholic Priest would take advantage over young choir boys, never would I have believed all the sexual assaulats made against high school kids either,by heir teachers male and female, ergo I see the government no differently. It is a machine that grinds along and as you say voting only puts another zookeeper in, but my vote, each time, is in hope that we get a much better zookeeper than the one before. (the Glock 27 is a .40 caliber mid range pistol).
In conclusion, I believe we all are merely spinning our wheels against to jolly green giant. The change has to come from the inside. I am in favor of a third party, that would create a mess.
Good Luck!

Suverans2's picture

G'day Glock27,

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." ~ Victor Frankl

Paul's picture

A nerve-wracking story about your son, and all too common in occurrence. I bet the episode got you questioning the legitimacy of the state, however. Look at the bright side of things. Every time these bastards do this sort of thing, they create more enemies. At some point, people will simply stop putting up with it.

eugenedw's picture

I was about to express my astonishment that it is illegal in the first place to possess a knife, and especially the harsh punishment for it. Do people get those sort of sentences even for illegal possession of firearms?

Anyway, it then occurred to me that my astonishment may be misplaced - I don't know whether there is such a law here in South Africa as well! I can't remember any cases where people have been prosecuted though. However, there probably soon will be such laws. Recently some brainless bureaucrat proposed a law that would make it illegal to even possess a pocket knife, and would also ban pepper spray for self-defense (this in a country with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and a largely corrupt and incompetent police force!)

They are of course shooting themselves in the foot: if I am no longer allowed to carry pepper spray, I may well decide to carry insect spray instead, which will kill instead of merely temporarily blind an assailant.

Glock27's picture

Yes there are in Michigan, and the laws are so screwed up. Any pocket knife with a blade over 3 inches can get one a term up to fifteen years if the prosecutor can prove intent to harm, also the same for a steletto, dirk, or dager or any double edged knife. Fortunately at this time there is a bill in the House of Representatives to gut this 1927 law, but there will still be stipulations I am sure.
When my son was arrested he had no idea the knife was in the car. There is a whole whorle of information surrounding this event I'll not get into, but my son still had to plead guilt to the charge and got probation for 6 months and loss of hunting privilages for 3 years. This was when he was 17. The prosecutor according to the attorney we hired said he wanted him for the full 15 years, but with the information I was able to provide proof he knew nothing about the knife and the rational behind it, the judge informed the prosecutor that he was being overly zelous in his attempt at 15 years.

Thanks for your concern,
Glock 27

Jim Davies's picture

(Re-posted as a Reply)

Paul's picture

A fool's errand, Jim. These people sold their souls long ago. There's no fixing them.

Oh, and you don't think cops and people in a prosecutor's office are not also "hopelessly intoxicated with power"? Of course that is one of the main benefits of their job.

Fortunately our liberty does not depend on convincing such corrupt people to do the right thing.

Jim Davies's picture

I'd sooner be a fool who tries, Paul, than a passenger who carps.

No, I do not think that support staff are hopelessly intoxicated with power. Inebriated, yes, but they do their jobs mostly because they need a job. Quite likely, they don't give much thought to vital questions such as the article raises. They are human beings, and I do not share the dark Judeo-Christian view of mankind as Original Sinner. Albeit suppressed a lot, they have consciences. Better yet, they have a wish to respect themselves. Hence the appeal, in the article, to both.

You're dead wrong in your third paragraph, too. Our liberty certainly does depend on persuading people not to work for this utterly evil organization; for if we don't, it will get inexorably larger and more oppressive, without known limit. The evidence of that is all around us; merely to review the monstrous progress of government in the US during the last 100 years should be sufficient proof. The ostrich option of pretending it's possible to live free while it continues its evil march will not last much longer. Niemoller, I recall, penned a few regrets when he came to understand that.

Suverans2's picture

The government office with the largest number of people who "work for this utterly evil organization", is the office of "citizen".

"The...system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around. What do you see. Business men, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it." ~ Morpheus