Monday, July 16, 2012
Public prosecutors exercise a significant amount of discretion in the criminal justice system. In the U.S. the dominant form of accountability is that prosecutors must be re-elected by the voters. Recent empirical work illustrates that election concerns open up the potential for distortion in the decisionmaking of prosecutors. Specifically, it has been shown that prosecutors take more cases to trial and plea bargain less when running for re-election. This effect is magnified when the incumbent is challenged. Does this hawkish behavior of prosecutors lead to inaccuracies in the criminal justice system? A panel data set of appellate decisions in western New York is analyzed. It is shown that if the initial felony conviction takes place in the six months prior to a re-election and is appealed, then the probability the appellate court upholds the lower court’s decision decreases by 5.1-7.1 percentage points. Thus, the popular election of prosecutors results in inaccurate sentences and wrongful convictions.