How a State's Attorney Works

A State's Attorney, along with a phalanx of Assistant State's Attorneys, prosecutes criminal and civil cases for the people.
A State's Attorney, along with a phalanx of Assistant State's Attorneys, prosecutes criminal and civil cases for the people.
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Prosecuting attorneys are the voice of the people in America's courtrooms, enforcing the law and representing the duly elected government at all levels. A State's Attorney is the most common term for a prosecutor, someone who represents the people in criminal and civil legal matters. But while the most iconic image of a State's Attorney is the trial prosecutor depicted in countless television shows, books and films, State's Attorneys don't just prosecute accused criminals.

As the head law enforcement official for their jurisdiction, they're also charged with looking out for the public's interest in all legal matters. Sometimes, that means filing a lawsuit against a company taking part in illegal business practices, in order to punish it and force it to stop. Other times, it means being the legal adviser to other elected local government officials. It can also mean taking people who fail to follow civil laws, such as zoning violations or child support issues, to court.

In general, State's Attorneys are elected by the people they represent. Their duties are spelled out in the laws of the local governments they represent, and they're held accountable by the voters for how well they do their jobs and how well their performance matches up with the local politics of the area.

But a State's Attorney hardly ever does the job alone. Many have offices that contain dozens or even hundreds of appointed assistant or deputy State's Attorneys, as well as support staff. These assistants or deputies are the ones who routinely appear in court, representing the State's Attorney's office.

In some places, State's Attorneys are called by different names. States that refer to themselves as commonwealths, such as Virginia and Kentucky, refer to them as Commonwealth's Attorneys [source: Commonwealth's Attorneys Services Council].

State's Attorneys generally represent a defined geographic area, such as a county, judicial district or judicial circuit. These generally hold the title of County Attorney, District Attorney or Circuit Attorney, respectively. State's Attorneys can also represent a city and be known as a City Attorney.

In the next section, we'll find out more about what a State's Attorney does and how he or she participates in the legal process.

What Does a State's Attorney Do?

Criminal prosecutions are the chief duty of most State's Attorney offices. In many states, such as Michigan, criminal prosecutions follow a predetermined series of steps [source: Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan].

First, police file a warrant or charging request with the State's Attorney following an investigation. Attorneys review the request and may decide to issue a warrant, which allows the police to arrest the suspect. An arraignment in court follows, at which the suspect is formally charged with a crime and enters a plea. Depending on the type and severity of a crime, there can be several pretrial hearings. At some point during these hearings, a plea bargain may be offered to induce the suspect to enter a guilty plea.

Before a trial takes place, the process of discovery takes place, at which the State's Attorney and the defense attorney share information they intend to introduce as evidence at trial. This can include physical or written depositions of witnesses to find out what they know, written questions called interrogatories which the other side must complete, and review of documents and evidence in the case [source: American Bar Association].

A trial may take place, and the State's Attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect committed the crime. Either a judge or a jury may decide the verdict on how well the State's Attorney proved the case. During the trial, the State's Attorney may make opening and closing statements, offer evidence, question witnesses and challenge the defense attorney's legal actions.

If the defendant is found guilty, the State's Attorney recommends a sentence for the judge to determine and may have to argue the case again in an appeal to a higher court.

Civil duties are also a large part of the State's Attorney's responsibilities. State's Attorneys may represent local elected officials, as the Hennepin County Attorney does in Minnesota [source: Hennepin County Attorney]. The County Attorney there advises the county board of commissioners and the county administrator, represents the county in legal actions, and negotiates on behalf of the county in employment and other contract situations.

The State's Attorney can be the debt collector for local government, especially when it comes to property taxes and bankruptcy issues.The office also offers legal advice and representation for local government human service agencies when it comes to child protection and welfare, child support, and adult services, including civil commitment hearings, welfare assistance and vulnerable adult issues.

Next, we'll learn more about the prosecutors charged with enforcing the law and carrying out the directions of the State's Attorney.

Assistant and Deputy State's Attorneys

One State's Attorney may be on the ballot at election time, but it takes an entire office to carry out the duties of the chief law enforcement official for the region.

For example, the Cook County State's Attorney in Chicago has more than 900 lawyers and a total staff of 1,600 employees [source: Cook County State's Attorney's Office]. Assistant State's Attorneys, also known as Deputy State's Attorneys,are the ones who actually appear in court, file the legal briefs and interview witnesses. The State's Attorney, on the other hand, is in charge of policy, staffing and running the office, and making decisions about certain high-profile cases.

The Cook County State's Attorney office is divided into seven sections or bureaus: criminal prosecutions, juvenile justice, narcotics, special prosecutions, civil actions, investigations and administrative services.

Another large State's Attorney office, that of Brooklyn, New York's Kings County District Attorney, has more than 40 bureaus, units and divisions, including a political corruption bureau, a civil rights and police integrity bureau, an educational bureau for school-age children, and a community relations bureau [source: Kings County District Attorney's Office].

In general, Assistant and Deputy State's Attorneys operate in criminal or civil divisions. Common criminal divisions include drugs and narcotics, property crimes, juvenile offenses, adult offenses, victim services and special prosecutions. Larger State's Attorney offices, such as Kings County, can include specialized units in areas including sex crimes and special victims, elder abuse,and domestic violence.

The civil side of the State's Attorney's office often includes civil law, child protection and human services divisions. Specialized units may investigate civil rights, workplace and labor claims, medical litigation, property tax and delinquent child support collections. Both criminal and civil divisions are often headed up by a Deputy or Chief Deputy State's Attorney. Other divisions in State's Attorney offices may focus on areas such as alternative sentencing, juvenile justice and victim's services.

Assistant State's Attorneys are on the front lines of all legal action involving the office. They're the lawyers most likely to be involved in charging an offense, interviewing witnesses, reviewing evidence and legal precedent, and trying cases in court. They're also the ones most likely to be involved in sentencing and appeals hearings.

The job of an Assistant State's Attorney is often regarded as an entry-level training position for a lawyer and a stepping stone to more prestigious legal employment in the future. Besides court and legal work, Assistant and Deputy State's Attorneys also work with law enforcement officials and public outreach. In Hennepin County, for example, a community prosecution program brings prosecutors, police, residents, business owners and others in an area dealing with high crime together to maximize cooperation and increase successes in arrests and prosecutions [source: Hennepin County Attorney].

For lots more information on the legal system, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Commonwealth's Attorneys Services Council. "Home." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • Attorney General of Massachusetts. "About the Office." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • Texas Attorney General. "Criminal Prosecution." Feb. 26, 2008. (April 2, 2010)
  • Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. "Steps in a Michigan Criminal Prosecution." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • American Bar Association. "Steps in a Trial: Discovery." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • Hennepin County Attorney. "Civil Law." 2008. (April 2, 2010)
  • United States Department of Justice. "United States Attorneys Mission Statement." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • Cook County State's Attorney's Office. "About the Cook County State's Attorney's Office." 2008. (April 2, 2010)
  • Kings County District Attorney's Office. "KCDA Bureaus, Units & Divisions." 2010. (April 2, 2010)
  • Hennepin County Attorney. "Community Prosecution." 2008. (April 2, 2010)
  • American Bar Association. "Frequently Asked Questions About the Grand Jury System." 2010. (April 2, 2010)