Donating to the District Attorney

Carissa Byrne Hessick - University of North Carolina School of Law
Michael Morse - University of Chicago Law School
Vol. 56
April 2023
Page 1769
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.
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