Adversarial Asymmetry in the Criminal Process

October
2016
Daniel Epps

It is a common lament that prosecutors in our criminal justice system are too adversarial. This Article argues that in a deeper sense, prosecutors may not be adversarial enough. The issue—which I call adversarial asymmetry—is that, as political actors, prosecutors have no inherent desire to seek maximal punishment, at least in any consistent way. While commentators tend to see this as a good thing, adversarial asymmetry helps explain a range of seemingly disparate pathologies in the criminal process. A number of problems—including the coerciveness of plea bargaining; pretextual prosecution; discriminatory charging practices; the proliferation of overly broad criminal statutes; the difficulty in deterring prosecutorial misconduct; and use of the grand jury as political cover for unpopular decisions—would not exist, or at least could be more easily solved, in a world where prosecutors were more single mindedly focused on maximizing victory in the criminal process. In fact, a more consistently adversarial system might have surprising advantages over our own, providing more accountability for prosecutors while being more consistent with the rule of law. And while heightened adversarialism unquestionably poses risks, alternative institutional structures could minimize those dangers. Even if actually implementing such a system is unrealistic or unappealing, the proposal has value as a thought experiment, for it exposes deep fault lines in the theoretical foundation of our system of criminal prosecution. Our current approach combines an adversarial process with politically accountable prosecutors—yet we lack a compelling account of what precise level of adversarialism is optimal or why political accountability is the right tool for producing good behavior from prosecutors. It should thus be unsurprising that our system often works poorly in practice. Absent a better reason to think that our current approach is the only option, we should be more willing to reconsider basic structural arrangements in criminal justice.

This article appears in the October 2016 Issue: Volume 91, Number 4