Professor Ron Wright’s research on incumbent prosecutors published by MSN News, Vox

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Ron Wright

Professor Ron Wright is one of the nation’s best known criminal justice scholars. He is the co-author of two casebooks in criminal procedure and sentencing; his empirical research concentrates on the work of criminal prosecutors.

Professor Ron Wright’s research about prosecutor elections has caught the attention of Vox and MSN News, who republished the Vox story here.

“Want to end mass incarceration? Stop blindly reelecting your local prosecutor.”

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch was widely criticized for his handling of the investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But when it came time for voters to hold him accountable, McCulloch ran unopposed, sweeping the November election after the August shooting.

The easy reelection reflects a troubling fact about criminal justice in the US: the political system and voters don’t really hold prosecutors accountable. About 95 percent of incumbent prosecutors won reelection, and 85 percent ran unopposed in general elections, according to data from nearly 1,000 elections between 1996 and 2006 analyzed by Ronald Wright of Wake Forest University School of Law.

But prosecutors are enormously powerful in the criminal justice system. They decide which laws will actually be enforced, with almost no checks on that power outside of elections. For instance, last year Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that he will no longer enforce low-level marijuana arrests. Think about how this works: pot is still very much illegal in New York, but the district attorney has flat-out said that he will ignore an aspect of the law — and it’s completely within his discretion to do so.

A prosecutor is also often the only public official standing between a defendant and prison time. More than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through a plea agreement, meaning only prosecutors and defendants — not judges and juries — have the final say in a great majority of cases that result in incarceration or some other punishment.

Prosecutors have also been at the center of police killing investigations over the past year following the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York City, and Brown in Ferguson, among others. It was a prosecutor — Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby — who decided to file charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s death. It was two prosecutors who guided the grand juries that decided not to file charges against the officers involved in Brown and Garner’s deaths, with no one else able to dictate how prosecutors should run the hearings.

Despite all of these powers, voters and lawmakers very rarely force prosecutors answer for their records — even as they play a key role in perpetuating the kind of mass incarceration that criminal justice reformers now want to end.

Read the entire story here.