National Study of Elected Prosecutors

Forty-five of the fifty states elect local prosecutors.  American prosecutors have wide latitude in the decisions that they make. Their decisions about what charges to bring and what plea bargains to offer are essentially unreviewable in the courts.  Instead, we rely on voters to hold prosecutors accountable.  Local elections provide a powerful check on the power that prosecutors wield—at least in theory.  But how does that check operate in practice?  Specifically, how much of a choice do voters have about who will make these important decisions in their communities?

The Prosecutors and Politics Project conducted a nationwide study of prosecutor elections.  The first of its kind, the study gathered data from every jurisdiction that elects local prosecutors.  An analysis of the data shows that voters are rarely given a choice between candidates.  It also shows that the likelihood of having such a choice varies significantly across states, and it also appears to depend on the population within a particular district and whether an incumbent is running in the election. 

National Study of Campaign Contributions and Elected Prosecutors

Because prosecutors are elected, they must campaign. In order to campaign, prosecutors must raise money. And campaign contributions to prosecutors can raise serious problems:

Campaign Contributions from Attorneys Can Reinforce Inequality

Prosecutors sometimes accept campaign contributions from attorneys whose clients are under investigation by the prosecutor’s office. When charges for such clients are dismissed, it (at a minimum) creates an appearance of impropriety. That appearance of impropriety is especially pernicious because it reinforces the structural inequality of the criminal justice system. Wealthy defendants are represented by wealthy attorneys who can make such contributions, while poor defendants are represented by less affluent attorneys or public defenders, neither of which can make large campaign contributions.

Difficulty in Finding Information on Contributions Weakens Prosecutors’ Political Accountability

Because elections serve as a check on prosecutors, we might expect that prosecutors would avoid controversial campaign contributions. Yet such contributions appear to be commonplace, and prosecutors who accept them do not face any political ramifications. One reason why the current system of political accountability is not particularly effective at policing campaign contributions is that the identities of contributors are not widely known. Information about who contributes to political campaigns and how much they contribute is publicly available, but it is laborious to find such information. Consequently, a prosecutor can feel relatively secure that accepting a controversial campaign contribution will not have a political cost.

Role of the Prosecutors and Politics Project

The Prosecutors and Politics Project is compiling a database that identifies who contributed to prosecutor elections and the amount of their donations. Campaign contribution information is often publicly available, but the format of that information varies from state to state, the information is often scattered across multiple sources and the information is sometimes incomplete. The project will compile this fragmented data into a single nationwide database that will allow sustained study about who contributes to prosecutor campaigns and the amount of contributions.

Access the database.  View initial analysis of the data.

National Study of State and Local Prosecutor Associations

Prosecutors often say that it is their job to enforce the law, not to make it.  Yet prosecutors often take public positions on whether certain criminal justice legislation ought to be passed or not.  This support or opposition sometimes comes from individual prosecutors.  But associations of prosecutors—organizations that traditionally provide training and other resources for prosecutors’ offices—have also announced support or opposition for criminal justice legislation.

The Unknown Influence of Prosecutor Associations in Criminal Justice Policy

Recent media accounts have highlighted the role of prosecutors associations in state criminal justice policy. For example, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association lobbied against civil asset forfeiture reform, and the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council opposed legislative reforms championed by criminal justice reform groups while supporting new mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

Some journalists have suggested that these organizations wield significant political power.  But the extent of the associations’ involvement and the likelihood of their success is unclear.  Up until now, prosecutor associations have largely escaped academic notice.

Role of the Prosecutors and Politics Project

The Prosecutors and Politics Project is conducting a nationwide study of prosecutor associations.  It is conducting a content analysis of state legislative materials and media archives to develop a comprehensive picture of the criminal justice issues on which these associations took a position, whether that position was expressed through formal legislative testimony, and the ultimate outcome of proposed state legislation that touched on these issues. The study will cover the years 2015-2018, and the results of the study are expected to be published in 2020.