Hessick Receives $90,000 Gift to Build Database of Prosecutor Campaign Contributions
Professor Hessick speaks with students involved in the project.
UNC School of Law has launched the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Carissa Byrne Hessick, the Ransdell
Distinguished Professor of Law, will serve as the director of the project. The project will allow faculty and students to work with community partners to study
the political and democratic checks on American prosecutors.
The project’s initial research will focus on the campaign
contributions that prosecutors receive when they run for office. The project
will compile election data from state and local governments across the country
into a database that identifies contributors to prosecutor elections and the
amount of their contributions. Based on that data, the project will publish
academic studies about prosecutor campaign contributions. The campaign
contribution research is funded by a generous $90,000 gift from the Vital
Projects Fund, Inc.
According to Hessick, although campaign contributions may be
a necessary feature of governments who elect their prosecutors, contributions
are also a potential source of inequality.
“Wealthy defendants are represented by wealthy attorneys who
are able to make such contributions, while poor defendants are represented by
less affluent attorneys or public defenders, who are less likely to be in a
position to make large campaign contributions,” Hessick says.
Hessick also notes that some prosecutors accept
contributions from political action committees that represent bail bonds
companies. Accepting contributions from those companies may create a conflict
of interest. Bail bonds companies stand to make money whenever judges require
defendants to post bail in order to be released from jail before trial. Because
prosecutors’ decisions whether to ask judges for bail is one of the major
factors in whether a defendant has to post bail, bails bonds companies have a
significant economic interest in making sure that only prosecutors who
routinely ask for bail are elected.
Once the campaign contribution data is compiled, it will be
made publicly available through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dataverse. The Dataverse will
allow voters to find out who is contributing to the campaigns of their local
prosecutors. Although campaign contribution information is supposed to be
publicly available, such information is often difficult to find.
“The format of that information varies from state to state,
the information is often scattered across multiple sources, and the information
is sometimes only available as scanned documents of individual contribution
receipts,” says Hessick. Making it easier for voters to find this information,
Hessick explained, “will ensure transparency and accountability—both of which
are absolutely necessary in a system that relies on elections to select
Hessick will work with 10 student research associates to
collect and analyze the data. Hessick plans to release the first round of data
-February 27, 2018