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The Role of the State Attorney General-Harvard Law School-Spring. 2022

Criminal Jurisdiction and Criminal Justice Reform - March 21 and March 28, 2022

The role each state's attorney general plays in the criminal justice system varies significantly from state to state.  This chapter describes that role and outlines the challenges that arise under this unique system of criminal justice.


Although law school teaching on criminal law usually focuses on federal law, the reality is that 90% of all criminal prosecutions take place in state court.  All attorneys general play a key role in the criminal justice system with all but three states (DE, RI, and AK) dividing criminal prosecution responsiblities among the attorney general and local district attorneys. While the statutes and policies differ from state to state, the long-standing practice of two interconnected levels of state criminal prosecution is deeply enmeshed in state prosecution practices. 

The divided responsibilities between attorneys general and district attorneys are meant to be complementary. The DA's handle the vast majority of cases and the AG's take those matters where there are legal conflicts (the DA or his/her staff has a personal relationship with a party, the judge, or a witness) or involve specific subject matter issues. (Medicaid Fraud, major crime in a rural area, white-collar crime, all homicides in some states, and increasingly, allegations of police brutality.). This structure is designed to allow the public to have greater confidence in the final result. It is not that the lawyers for the attorney general are "better" than the lawyers for the district attorney, but rather it is that AG offices often have resources that allow the development of expertise in areas that rarely come before a DA.

For a video introduction to this Chapter see: