The Changing Political Landscape for Elected Prosecutors
28 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2016 Last revised: 9 Apr 2017
Date Written: August 24, 2016
For years the only serious question about district attorney elections was whether they were pernicious or merely a charade. One view was that running for reelection turned prosecutors into politicians, and that politics demanded that prosecutors appear tough, unforgiving, and staunchly pro-police. The rival view was that prosecutorial elections were meaningless, because incumbents hardly ever lost, and campaigns focused on personalities, not on policies. Recently, though, a surprising number of district attorneys have won office by promising some combination of less aggressive charging, more vigilance against wrongful convictions, and greater scrutiny of the police. This essay examines these results and draws three tentative lessons. First, claims about the inexorable logic of criminal justice politics should be greeted with skepticism. Second, there is room for guarded optimism about electoral democracy as a tool for reforming prosecutors’ offices, but voters need better tools for evaluating how those offices are performing. Third, as reformers increase their focus on prosecutorial elections, there is a danger worth bearing in mind: the risk that prosecutorial decision-making will become inappropriately politicized, especially when elections focus on the handling or the outcome of particular cases.
Keywords: Prosecutors, Criminal Procedure
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