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The Power Of 'Tough-On-Crime' Prosecutors And Mass Incarceration In America

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How has prosecutorial discretion affected the current state of criminal justice and contributed to mass incarceration in America?

There are 2.2 million people living behind bars in the United States. Texas ranks near the top of the list for states with the highest incarceration rates.

If the justice system is supposed to be a fair fight between equal adversaries, something has gone wrong. The cash bail system, underfunded and overwhelmed public defenders and prosecutorial discretion are just a few factors that have led to a 500 percent increase in the country's incarcerated population over the last 40 years.

A major contributor to such a high number of people in U.S. prisons and jails is the will and power of prosecutors. Much of the time it is they who largely control case outcomes, not judges.

The mostly unchecked power of the prosecutor means they answer to almost no one and make big decisions like determining bail amounts and plea bargains. They can do great harm as well as good.

What is prosecutorial discretion and how does it work? How can American prosecution heal itself, reduce incarceration and increase fairness in the justice system?


"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 210-614-8980, email thesource@tpr.org or tweet at @TPRSource. 


*This interview was recorded on Thursday, May 30. 

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Kim Johnson is the producer for Texas Public Radio’s live, call-in show The Source. She is a Trinity University alum with bachelor’s degrees in Communication and Spanish, and a Master of Arts Degree from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dallas Williams is a Producer for The Source at Texas Public Radio. With a degree in Mass Communication — Broadcast Media, Dallas brings a unique perspective and a passion to producing a live, call-talk show.