Prosecutor Politics: The Impact of Election Cycles on Criminal Sentencing in the Era of Rising Incarceration

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  • I investigate how political incentives affect the behavior of district attorneys (DAs). I develop a theoretical model that predicts DAs will increase sentencing intensity in an election period compared to the period prior. To empirically test this prediction, I compile one of the most comprehensive datasets to date on the political careers of all district attorneys in office during the steepest rise in incarceration in U.S. history (roughly 1986–2006). Using quasi-experimental methods, I find causal evidence that being in a DA election year increases total admissions per capita and total months sentenced per capita. I estimate that the election year effects on admissions are akin to moving 0.85 standard deviations along the distribution of DA behavior within state (e.g., going from the 50th to 80th percentile in sentencing intensity). I find evidence that election effects are larger (1) in the southern United States, (2) in Republican counties, and (3) when DA elections are contested—consistent with the perspective that political incentives matter. Though I find evidence that county-level pro-White racial bias is associated with lower election year effects on Black prisoners, this decline is offset by even higher baseline punitiveness for Black prisoners throughout the election cycle. I also find that district attorney election effects decline over the period 1986–2006, in tandem with U.S. public opinion softening regarding criminal punishment. Together, these findings suggest DA behavior may respond to voter preferences—including racial sentiment and preferences regarding the harshness of the court system.


Last updated on 11/21/2021