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Picking Prosecutors

Carissa Byrne Hessick & Michael Morse, Picking Prosecutors, 105 Iowa L. Rev. 1537 (2020): “The United States imprisons its citizens at such a remarkable rate ––unprecedented in American history and without international parallel ––that critics have characterized the country as a carceral state. Despite its size, the “carceral state has been a largely invisible feature” of American politics: Much of the rise of mass incarceration over the last five decades has happened without significant public debate. This is in part because there is no single, national criminal justice system, but rather a patchwork of local systems. That patchwork frustrates efforts not only at coordination but also observation. Within the past decade or so, though, a dedicated group of academics has offered multiple, sometimes competing, lenses to understand why we experienced surging incarceration rates. These include racial control, racial backlash, racial wedges, racial liberalism, intra-class black politics, “pendulum justice,” political economic crises, a punitive public, and a unique institutional landscape that fundamentally transformed modern social movements. This work is nothing less than crucial. But nearly all prominent work on the politics of mass incarceration has focused, at least primarily, on a national story. As a result, the local prosecutor has been largely absent from the project of explaining why we experienced surging incarceration rates and how to unwind it. Our Article contributes to a small, but growing literature that acknowledges the centrality of local prosecutors to criminal justice outcomes. The reality has always been that the vast majority of people under criminal supervision are arrested by the local police and charged by the thousands of local prosecutors who dot the United States. William Stuntz famously characterized these local prosecutors as “the criminal justice system’s real lawmakers.” More recently, John Pfaff has provided empirical support for Stuntz’s account, using existing but under-utilized data to try to persuade others that prosecutors are “the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system.”…[h/t Mary Whisner]

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