Prosecutors and Politics Project to Study District Attorneys’ Roles in Shaping State Criminal Justice Policy

September 17, 2019

Research Supported by Charles Koch Foundation Grant

UNC School of Law’s Prosecutors and Politics Project, which was established in 2018, is commencing an empirical study of district attorneys associations to determine their influence on state criminal justice policy. The results of the study, which are expected to be published in 2020, will be available to the general public and other researchers using the University of North Carolina’s Dataverse. The research project is made possible with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The Project will conduct 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. The study will cover the years 2015-2018.

“The conventional wisdom is that these associations of prosecutors wield significant power in the state legislative process,” says Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project and the Anne Shea Randsdell and William Garland “Buck” Randsdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law. “While media accounts and academic scholarship often assume these associations’ activities play a decisive role in the passage or defeat of criminal justice legislation, there is surprisingly little factual information available to either support or disprove that assumption.”

A $55,000 gift from the Charles Koch Foundation will support the study. The gift will allow for ten Carolina Law student research associates who will assist Hessick in gathering and analyzing the data for this study. The gift also reinforces UNC School of Law’s commitment to recruit, retain and reward world-renowned faculty who create meaningful learning experiences for our future lawyer-leaders.

“Reforms to our criminal justice system have opened new opportunities for thousands of individuals and hundreds of communities,” said Charles Koch Foundation executive director Ryan Stowers. “We’re excited to support the UNC researchers who have the chance to build on this progress by studying the incentives and relationships that shape the law and how its applied.”

The Foundation supports students and scholars pursuing research and expanding educational programs that help people reach their full potential.

The Prosecutors and Politics Project allows Carolina Law faculty and students to work with community partners to study the political and democratic checks in the American criminal justice system.  The Project’s ongoing study of campaign contributions in prosecutor elections has garnered national media attention. Hessick and her students have published editorials about the project in the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other news outlets across the country.

“We are grateful to the Charles Koch Foundation for this gift that will help us expand the research of the project and provide hands-on learning experiences for our student research associates,” says Hessick. 

The grant supports For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina, the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the University’s history.