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National Study of Campaign Contributions and Elected Prosecutors

Because prosecutors are elected, they must campaign. In order to campaign, prosecutors must raise money. And campaign contributions to prosecutors can raise serious problems:

Campaign Contributions from Attorneys Can Reinforce Inequality

Prosecutors sometimes accept campaign contributions from attorneys whose clients are under investigation by the prosecutor’s office. When charges for such clients are dismissed, it (at a minimum) creates an appearance of impropriety. That appearance of impropriety is especially pernicious because it reinforces the structural inequality of our criminal justice system. Wealthy defendants are represented by wealthy attorneys who can make such contributions, while poor defendants are represented by less affluent attorneys or public defenders, neither of which can make large campaign contributions.

Campaign Contributions from PACs Can Create Conflicts of Interest

That criminal defense attorneys contribute money is hardly the only problem associated with prosecutor campaign contributions. Some prosecutors receive contributions from Political Action Committees. Several prosecutors have accepted contributions from PACs that represent bail bonds companies. Those companies stand to make significant profits if judges set high bail amounts. Since judges will often defer to a prosecutor’s bail recommendation, accepting contributions from bail bonds PACs may create a conflict of interest.

Difficulty in Finding Information on Contributions Weakens Prosecutors’ Political Accountability

Because elections serve as a check on prosecutors, we might expect that prosecutors would avoid controversial campaign contributions. Yet such contributions appear to be commonplace, and prosecutors who accept them do not face any political ramifications. One reason why our system of political accountability is not particularly effective at policing campaign contributions is that the identities of contributors are not widely known. Information about who contributes to political campaigns and how much they contribute is publicly available, but it is laborious to find such information. Consequently, a prosecutor can feel relatively secure that accepting a controversial campaign contribution will not have a political cost.

Role of the Prosecutors and Politics Project

The Prosecutors and Politics Project has begun to compile a database that identifies who contributed to prosecutor elections and the amount of their donations. Campaign contribution information is often publicly available, but the format of that information varies from state to state, the information is often scattered across multiple sources and the information is sometimes incomplete. The project will compile this fragmented data into a single nationwide database that will allow sustained study about who contributes to prosecutor campaigns and the amount of contributions.

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