Criminal Justice 101

Debunking Myths About Prosecutors and the Criminal Justice System

We’re here to debunk common myths about Prosecutors and the Criminal Justice System. Over time our Association has collected common myths out there, and it’s our goal to inform our state and community about the real facts.

FACT: False. A prosecutor’s duty is to pursue justice, not convictions. When dictated by particularly egregious facts, justice can mean incarceration. However, in most cases, justice means probation, mental health court, drug court, other counseling, or a combination of these alternatives.

A prosecutor’s duty to pursue justice extends to ensuring a criminal defendant’s rights are protected and that the innocent go free. In fact, many prosecutors’ offices have units that work to prevent, identify, and remedy wrongful convictions. For example, the Clark County and Washoe County District Attorney’s Offices have established conviction review units.

FACT: False. Prosecutors support alternatives to incarceration that can make our communities safer. In fact, many prosecutors’ offices have developed their own programs for this purpose. For example, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office partners with a local nonprofit, Hope for Prisoners, to provide services in lieu of incarceration when appropriate. Prosecutors support and collaborate with rehabilitative court programs in Nevada. These opportunities for reform are used often for criminal defendants with substance abuse and other addictive disorders as well as those with mental health diagnoses. There are countless counseling and rehabilitative options as well as many diversionary court programs available, including Drug Court, Veterans’ Treatment Court, Mental Health Court, Autism Court, Juvenile Sex Offender Court, Gamblers’ Court, DUI Treatment Court, Community Court, and more.

FACT: False. The American legal system prescribes different roles and obligations for prosecutors and defense attorneys. Prosecutors are legally and ethically obligated in every case to pursue justice by discerning the truth and protecting the rights of all, i.e. victims, defendants, and the community. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, are obligated to a specific client and must advocate for the interests of that client above any other consideration.

FACT: False. Prosecutors represent the entire community, which includes victims and their families, law enforcement, and criminal defendants. The role of a prosecutor is to protect the community and endeavor to improve public safety by prosecuting those who threaten the well-being of the community and its citizens by breaking the law. Prosecutors strive to seek justice for victims and provide a path to reform and second chances for criminal defendants who can be rehabilitated. Prosecutors’ offices employ or partner with Victim Witness Advocates who are specifically dedicated to ensuring victims and witnesses are supported through the criminal justice process.

FACT: False. The American criminal justice system was specifically designed to prevent the concentration of power, particularly amongst prosecutors. Crimes and penalties are defined by the legislature, not prosecutors. Arrests based on those definitions are made by the police. A prosecutor’s charging decisions must be reviewed by a judge and supported by evidence. Prosecutors cannot convict anyone; only judges and juries possess this power. Although prosecutors can recommend a particular sentence, judges can and routinely do discount their recommendations.

FACT: False. “As a rule, Americans do not go to prison for first-time, simple possession offenses. Just 3.6 percent of state inmates and a mere 0.9 percent of federal inmates are in for drug possession offenses (for any drug, to include heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine), with the vast majority of these inmates having long prior rap sheets or having plead down from more serious charges.” Criminal Justice Reform and Drugs: Myths and Facts, by Brian Blake.

FACT: False. Prosecutors are subject to constant scrutiny. Media and watch-dog groups regularly report on trials and prosecutors. Trials and court proceedings are open to the public. Court files are accessible to the public. Further, the adversarial nature of the justice system ensures that there is a constant source of opposition to and scrutiny of a prosecutor’s actions. Trial and appellate judges review what prosecutors do and will take action if a prosecutor violates the law. Further, District Attorneys are accountable to the community, and they must run for re-election every four years.

FACT: False. On popular television shows, every single investigation reveals forensic evidence and testing results are obtained within minutes. In reality, only a small percentage of cases have usable forensic evidence and most testing takes weeks or months in labs, many of which have extreme backlogs. Even after analysis, sometimes the results are inconclusive.

FACT:  False.  As of January 31, 2022, Nevada’s prison population was 10,736 inmates, representing a ratio of 335 inmates per 100,000 people.  According to the Washington D.C. based non-profit “The Sentencing Project,” the average prison incarceration rate in the United States is 419 inmates per 100,000 people.  Moreover, the prison population in Nevada on January 31, 2002 was 10,384 inmates, representing a ratio of 494 inmates per 100,000 people. 

FACT: False.  In 2007, the Nevada Legislature passed AB 510 which required the Nevada Department of Corrections to apply prison credits earned by an inmate (i.e. good time credit, programming credits, etc…) to the minimum sentence imposed by the sentencing court on the majority of felony classifications in Nevada.  As a result, prison inmates may serve as little as 42% of their minimum sentence.  In practical terms, a defendant sentenced to 5 years in prison with parole eligibility after a minimum of 2 years has been served can get out after only 11 months have been served!