Donating to the District Attorney

79 Pages Posted: 4 May 2023

See all articles by Michael Morse

Michael Morse

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Carissa Byrne Hessick

University of North Carolina School of Law; Prosecutors and Politics Project

Nathan Pinnell

Prosecutors and Politics Project

Date Written: April 21, 2023

Abstract

The United States is the only country that elects its local prosecutors. In theory, these local elections could facilitate local control of criminal justice policy. But the academic literature assumes that, in practice, prosecutor elections fail to live up to that promise. This Article complicates that conventional wisdom with a new, national study of campaign contributions in prosecutor elections. The study offers a more complete empirical account of prosecutor accountability by analyzing contributions to local candidates as well as their election results. It details the amount of money in local prosecutor elections, including from interest groups, and the relationship between candidate fundraising and success. The stark differences across the country underscore that the more than two thousand local prosecutors are not a monolith; some offices are best understood as political, with contested elections and significant amounts of campaigning, while most appear more bureaucratic, with neither. Recognizing this distinction suggests that accountability efforts require a multifaceted approach. If some prosecutors are more akin to bureaucrats, reformers should not limit themselves to recruiting electoral challengers; they should also consider layering bureaucratic accountability on top of political accountability. Further, at least for now, money in prosecutor politics has served as a moderating, rather than punitive, force.

Keywords: prosecutors, elections, local government, criminal justice reform

Suggested Citation

Morse, Michael and Hessick, Carissa Byrne and Pinnell, Nathan, Donating to the District Attorney (April 21, 2023). UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2023, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4426622

Michael Morse (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.upenn.edu/faculty/morsem

Carissa Byrne Hessick

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

Prosecutors and Politics Project ( email )

University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC
United States

Nathan Pinnell

Prosecutors and Politics Project ( email )

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