Progressive chief prosecutors have been elected in numerous jurisdictions throughout the United States. These reform-minded prosecutors campaigned on platforms aimed at reducing the punitive excesses of traditional law-and-order chief prosecutors, whose policies contributed to mass incarceration and increased
racial/ethnic disparities in prison populations.
By some estimates, at least 60 progressive prosecutors have been elected and more progressive chief
prosecutors are on the ballot in the upcoming election cycle.
Chief prosecutors are among the most powerful decision-makers in the justice system, yet until recently their elections were low-profile events. Chief prosecutors also known as district or state attorneys hire and train line prosecutors as well as establish the policies that guide the enormous discretion of line prosecutors.
These policies shape whether or not criminal charges will be filed, which charges will be pursued, and which cases will be offered diversion from prosecution. Office practices controlled by chief prosecutors also heavily influence sentencing by directing plea negotiations and via their charging decisions, which dictate the
available sentencing options in many jurisdictions.
Despite these vast and crucial powers over defendants’ liberty, most incumbent chief prosecutors run unopposed in the 45 states that elect lead prosecutors. Only recently, with the emergence of
progressive prosecutors, have their elections become the subject of intense public debate.
A study by Ojmarrh Mitchell of Arizona State University and colleagues recently published in Criminology & Public Policy and funded by the National Institute of Justice examines whether progressive prosecutors are effective in achieving their goals of reducing the punitiveness of case outcomes and the magnitude of racial/ethnic disparities in case outcomes.
This team of researchers drew a large random sample of felony cases filed throughout the state of Florida and then tracked each case from initial filing to disposition. These data allowed the study authors to compare whether cases processed in jurisdictions headed by progressive prosecutors received systematically different case outcomes and were more neutral to the race/ethnicity of defendants in comparison to traditional chief
The authors found cases handled under progressive chief prosecutors were less likely to convicted of a felony and less likely to be sentenced to prison.
The study found that progressive jurisdictions were more likely to dismiss felony cases, transfer felony cases to misdemeanor courts, and divert cases from prosecution than jurisdictions with traditional prosecutors. All of these outcomes lead cases away from felony convictions. Because of these differences, cases adjudicated under progressive prosecutors were significantly less likely to be convicted of a felony than similar cases handled by traditional prosecutors, 49 percent vs. 60 percent, respectively.
Likewise, in comparison to similar cases processed in to other jurisdictions, cases in progressive jurisdictions were less likely to be sentenced to a prison term, 11 percent vs. 16 percent.
Racial disparities were also smaller in progressive jurisdictions. Notably, the authors found little evidence that Hispanic defendants received harsher sanctions than White defendants, regardless of whether the chief prosecutor was progressive or traditional. But the authors found evidence of racial disparities, which varied by the orientation of the lead prosecutor.
In particular, Black defendants in traditional jurisdictions were more likely to be sentenced to White
defendants, 18 percent vs. 15 percent, but in progressive jurisdictions there were no meaningful differences in the probability of receiving a prison sentence by race—the probability of prison sentences was 11 percent for Black and 12 percent for White defendants.
The authors concludes by noting that other mechanisms designed to control prison populations and reduce racial disparities by constraining the discretion of court actors such as sentencing guidelines have largely failed to achieve these goals.
The election of progressive prosecutors represents a fundamental change in tactics. Instead of seeking to constrain discretion, the election of progressive prosecutors trusts these officials to use their powers in
more discerning and equitable fashions. Their research finds initial support that progressive prosecutors are in fact using their tremendous discretionary authority to achieve the goals of reducing the use of prison sentences and racial disparities in prison sentences.