Prosecutors and Politics Project Delves into Political Power of Prosecutors When Passing Legislation


By Ankita Joshi

CALIFORNIA – In California, a study has found that prosecutors were very active lobbyists, and were involved in approximately 56 percent of all criminal justice bills passed.

But, in comparison to other states, California prosecutors were not extremely successful, according to the University of North Carolina School Of Law’s Prosecutors and Politics Project, which is a research initiative that studies the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system.

The project noted that the “California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) lobbied in favor of a bill, the bill was just slightly more likely to pass (47.4 percent pass rate); when they lobbied against a bill, there was actually an increased passage rate (52 percent pass rate).”

The main goal of the research initiative is to draw attention to the political power and the democratic accountability of elected prosecutors through empirical studies conducted in each state.

Between 2015 and 2018, prosecutors in the U.S. were “involved in 25 percent of all criminal-justice-related bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures,” many of which favored an increased scope of criminal law. These prosecutor lobbied bills were also twice as likely to pass as an average bill, the study found.

Researchers on the Prosecutors and Politics Project coded bills that were passed during the four-year period between Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018, and mainly identified those involved with lessening or increasing the scope of criminal law, decreased or increased punishments, increased or decreased funding for criminal justice activities, and bills that altered rights,
responsibilities, or liabilities of criminal justice actors.

All information was gathered from official legislative documents, news media accounts, and press releases, newsletters, etc.

It was found that in all 50 state legislatures, state lawmakers were more likely to pass bills that made the criminal justice system harsher, and favored prosecutors or law enforcement more generally.

Of the bills coded, prosecutors were involved with 27 percent of those that were passed. Depending on the state, the amount of bills prosecutors lobbied on varied. However, in some states, prosecutors lobbied for more than 95 percent of all bills.

It was found that, nationally, prosecutors were more successful when they lobbied in favor of a bill, rather than against. For example, bills that “prosecutors supported had a 45 percent pass rate.”

While some prosecutor lobbying comes from specific offices, many states have a more coordinated prosecutor lobbying strategy. This coordinated strategy includes private non-profit corporations or stature corporations, which work to provide training materials to local prosecutors and appoint members on statewide commissions.

From the report, five clear national trends were found, and included the involvement of prosecutors in the passage of criminal law, the likelihood of prosecutors supporting legislation that expands criminal law, the positive influence prosecutors have on the passing of legislation, especially legislation that “narrows the scope of criminal law,” and that prosecutors are less successful in preventing legislation from passing.

In California, similar to the national trend, California prosecutors favored bills that expanded the scope of criminal law, and tended to oppose more lenient bills.

The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), formed in 1902, is the main organization in charge of prosecutor lobbying and includes the district attorney from each of the 58 counties in California, and also “experienced district attorneys.”

The CDAA claims to “enhance prosecutorial excellence,” and receives “state and federal grants” for special projects, including forensic training, domestic violence, vehicle crimes, high-tech crimes, and environmental crimes.

In addition to the CDAA, individual district attorney’s offices also lobby for prosecutors and their own offices. This individual lobbying is more common in larger offices such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento.

The overall trend found in the lobbying efforts of the CDAA included that the CDAA “largely opposed many reforms intended to reduce sentences and further decrease prison populations throughout the state.”

Examples of the opposed reforms included a bill to release inmates over the age of 60 who had served at least 25 years on their sentence, and a bill that would have allowed judges to impose for specific misdemeanors.

A series of bills focused on reducing the impact of mass incarceration on young people was also opposed. These bills involved giving juveniles the right to an attorney before any interrogation by law enforcement, an expansion on the definition of youth, and the protection of substantive rights.

The report also noted that there was discussion and debate present during the study period about prosecutorial misconduct. CDAA contended that many of the proposed legislative changes were too extreme and unnecessary.

Bills that the CDAA supported included those that were aligned with victim rights, and the collection of DNA evidence from people arrested and charged with crimes, regardless of the nonviolent or violent nature.

And while many California prosecutors supported legislation that would make criminal punishments harsher, some individual offices supported legislation that would reduce the severity of criminal punishment.

San Diego’s District Attorney’s Office supported a bill that provided prosecutors the discretion to charge certain misdemeanors as infractions. And Santa Carla’s District Attorney’s Office supported a bill that would allow prosecutors to request the court to recall/resentence cases.

Overall, CDAA did follow the national trend of supporting bills that operated to expand the scope of criminal law, give greater discretion to prosecutors, and impose harsher punishments.

Ankita Joshi is a second-year student at the University of San Francisco, pursuing a major in International Studies and a minor in Political Science. She is originally from Sacramento, CA.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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