Professor Ron Wright joins new think tank to train, study prosecutors featured in Wall Street Journal

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Ron Wright

Professor Ron Wright is one of the nation’s best known criminal justice scholars. He is the co-author of two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing; his empirical research concentrates on the work of criminal prosecutors.

Professor Ron Wright has been tapped to serve on the new Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, which is featured in the following Wall Street Journal story, “New Think Tank Aims to Train, Study Prosecutors.” The institute was launched by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. A portion of the original story follows:

State prosecutors in the U.S. handle more than 90 percent of the criminal cases charged in the country each year, and their decisions—about what charges to file and how to handle delicate cases—shape policing, court dockets and prison populations. Amid a national debate about law enforcement, some believe the role of these district attorneys, state’s attorneys and county prosecutors — a group of about 2,700 nationwide who are nearly all elected — is poorly understood.

A new think tank focused on the training and academic study of prosecutors is to be launched this month by John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The goal of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution is to serve as a “national laboratory” to drive changes in policy and practices for prosecutors, according to organizers.

“Criminal justice is on the front page and at the front of the minds of people around the country,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a co-chairman of the institute’s advisory board. “We need to seize our narrative, own it and write it.”

Mr. Vance’s office plans to support the institute’s first three years with $3 million from settlements with banks accused of wrongdoing. The institute plans to address a number of issues, including racial disparities and biases in the criminal-justice system, disclosure of grand-jury proceedings, plea bargaining and pretrial diversion programs. It will hold workshops for new prosecutors and undertake longer-term research projects.

“Prosecutors are unique in that they exercise that high level of power within the system, but their relationship to the rest of the system is poorly understood,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Travis, who is also a co-chairman of the institute’s advisory board, pointed to the differing responses from prosecutors in Staten Island, Missouri and elsewhere to police-involved deaths of civilians and the grand-jury proceedings that followed. But even on less-visible issues, such as the prosecution of low-level drug cases, prosecutors’ discretion can have a tremendous impact, experts said.

Prosecutors are “probably the most powerful actors in the system, but we have no idea what they do and why they do it because we have no data,” said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who has studied how prosecutors’ charging decisions affect the prison population.