The host of HBO's Last Week Tonight used a segment of Sunday's episode to put the spotlight on an important but often forgotten about element of the criminal justice system: prosecutors. John Oliver's segment on prosecutors highlighted the surprising amount of influence these legal representatives wield at almost every stage of America's criminal justice system. In fact, he jokingly likened their ability to ruin lives to that of the restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory.
"Whenever we talk about criminal justice reform, we tend to just talk about policing, public defenders, judges, and prisons, and skip over a crucial element there: prosecutors, the attorneys who work for the federal, state, and local government and bring cases to trial," Oliver said in the Aug. 5 episode, noting that there are roughly 2,500 prosecutors working across the country. But prosecutors are absolutely worth thinking about, Oliver argued.
"Prosecutors decide whether you get charged and what you get charged with, and therefore heavily influence what kind of sentence you could face," he explained. To really drive home how much influence, and therefore, power prosecutors hold, Oliver went on to point out how often we're told that "prosecutors will decide" if, and what, criminal charges are filled.
But prosecutors also hold considerable influence beyond just the filing of charges. "The vast majority of the time your fate is not decided by a judge or jury," Oliver said. "Nearly 95 percent of the cases that prosecutors decide to prosecute end up with the defendant pleading guilty."
That means the majority of people prosecutors go after "give up" when confronted with prosecutors' intimidation tactics, like threats to stack charges if a defendant opts to go to trial. And in giving up and signing a plea deal, people are essentially barred from receiving a fair trial or the presumption of innocence. What's more, others in the criminal justice system (like judges) have simply accepted this because "plea bargains keep the system moving," Oliver explained Sunday.
According to Oliver, prosecutors also seek to gain an advantage over the 5 percent of defendants who do opt to go to trial. "Perhaps the area where prosecutors can exert the most influence concerns evidence, because they control the case files," Oliver said. "While they are required to hand over anything that is exculpatory or that might be useful in your defense, in some states, including New York, they can do that at the incredibly last minute." A lawyer described this as "trial by ambush" and Oliver likened it to having to give a presentation about a book without having had the chance to actually read the book in question.
Oliver also noted there was little accountability for prosecutors found to be withholding evidence. "That lack of accountability can fuel a dangerous culture where wins are already prioritized to a disturbing degree," Oliver said, noting that some prosecutors across the country are awarded with bonuses or "prizes" for convictions.
Oliver went on to argue that one of the most direct ways to affect change in the criminal justice system by checking prosecutors' power and holding them accountable is to head to the polls as most district attorneys are elected. This means voters have to take it upon themselves to educate and familiarize themselves with who their local district attorney is. "Most people know as much about their local D.A. as they do about their local Cheesecake Factory manager." Oliver said. "Chances are you don't know who they are and if you do it’s because something truly terrible has happened."
"Like the Cheesecake Factory, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second," Oliver went on to argue. "If we do not decide ourselves what we want our criminal justice system to look like — prosecutors will decide."