The conventional academic wisdom is that prosecutor elections are little more than empty exercises. Using a new, national survey of local prosecutor elections––the first of its kind––this Article offers a more complete account of the legal and empirical landscape. It confirms that incumbents are rarely contested and almost always win. But it moves beyond extant work to consider the nature of local political conflict, including how often local prosecutors face any contestation or any degree of competition. It also demonstrates a significant difference in the degree of incumbent entrenchment based on time in office. Most importantly, it reveals a stark divide between rural and urban prosecution. Urban areas are more likely to hold a contested election than rural areas. Rural areas, in which very few lawyers live, rarely hold contested elections and sometimes are not able to field even a single candidate for a prosecutor election. The results suggest that the nascent movement to use prosecutor elections as a source of criminal justice reform may have success, at least in the short term. But elections are, as of now, not a likely source of reform in rural areas—the very areas where incarceration rates continue to rise.
Iowa Law Review
Morse, Michael and Hessick, Carissa Byrne, "Picking Prosecutors" (2020). Articles. 288.