UNC School of Law Launches Prosecutors and Politics Project

February 27, 2018

Professor Carissa Hessick Receives $90,000 Gift to Build Database of Prosecutor Campaign Contributions

Professor Hessick
Professor Hessick speaks with students involved in the project.

UNC School of Law has launched the Prosecutors and Politics ProjectCarissa Byrne Hessick, the Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law, will serve as the director of the project. The project will allow faculty and students to work with community partners to study the political and democratic checks on American prosecutors.

The project’s initial research will focus on the campaign contributions that prosecutors receive when they run for office. The project will compile election data from state and local governments across the country into a database that identifies contributors to prosecutor elections and the amount of their contributions. Based on that data, the project will publish academic studies about prosecutor campaign contributions. The campaign contribution research is funded by a generous $90,000 gift from the Vital Projects Fund, Inc.

According to Hessick, although campaign contributions may be a necessary feature of governments who elect their prosecutors, contributions are also a potential source of inequality.

“Wealthy defendants are represented by wealthy attorneys who are able to make such contributions, while poor defendants are represented by less affluent attorneys or public defenders, who are less likely to be in a position to make large campaign contributions,” Hessick says.

Hessick also notes that some prosecutors accept contributions from political action committees that represent bail bonds companies. Accepting contributions from those companies may create a conflict of interest. Bail bonds companies stand to make money whenever judges require defendants to post bail in order to be released from jail before trial. Because prosecutors’ decisions whether to ask judges for bail is one of the major factors in whether a defendant has to post bail, bails bonds companies have a significant economic interest in making sure that only prosecutors who routinely ask for bail are elected.

Once the campaign contribution data is compiled, it will be made publicly available through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dataverse. The Dataverse will allow voters to find out who is contributing to the campaigns of their local prosecutors. Although campaign contribution information is supposed to be publicly available, such information is often difficult to find.

“The format of that information varies from state to state, the information is often scattered across multiple sources, and the information is sometimes only available as scanned documents of individual contribution receipts,” says Hessick. Making it easier for voters to find this information, Hessick explained, “will ensure transparency and accountability—both of which are absolutely necessary in a system that relies on elections to select prosecutors.”

Hessick will work with 10 student research associates to collect and analyze the data. Hessick plans to release the first round of data in May.

-February 27, 2018