The Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fellowship from the UW Center for Human Rights has provided invaluable support for my dissertation research. My research examines the movements for and against “progressive” prosecutors in the United States. Democratically elected, with the power to file charges and to shape plea deals, local prosecutors represent one of the most powerful institutional actors in the criminal legal system. Although prosecutors were largely overlooked during initial research on mass incarceration, they have more recently come under increasing scrutiny as a potential source of or hindrance to reform. On the reform side, there have been unlikely alliances between prosecutors and formerly incarcerated advocates (Gardner and Rozsa 2020). Countering this movement, there has been significant pushback to “progressive” prosecutors, including the removal of cases from Aramis Ayala by then-Florida Governor Rick Scott (Cordeiro 2017), the recall of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco (White 2022), and the forced resignation of Kim Gardner in St. Louis (Salter 2023). Thus, prosecutor reform offers an important site to examine the country’s current debate over safety, justice, and how to stem mass incarceration’s deleterious effects on human rights. Therefore, my dissertation asks: How, if at all, have the movements for and against “progressive” prosecutors affected mass incarceration and racial inequality in the criminal legal system?
I am examining this question through a mixed-methods study. First, I am collecting and analyzing administrative data related to potential changes in felony filings in prosecutors’ offices, which can shed light into the reach of and racial disparities within the criminal legal system. Second, I am collecting and analyzing data related to the elections of and resistance to “progressive” prosecutors who try to use their discretion to limit felony filings and other drivers of mass incarceration. Third, I am conducting interviews with stakeholders with unique insight into the efforts of and resistance to prosecutor reform. I anticipate completing initial data collection and analysis by the end of fall quarter 2023, and beginning interviews in winter quarter 2024. I will present preliminary findings at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology in November, prepare to submit these findings to a peer-reviewed journal by early 2024, and continue my dissertation research with plans to defend by spring 2025.
As my findings become clearer, I hope to distribute them to practitioners, prosecutors, and advocates seeking to curb mass incarceration’s deleterious effects. Myriad studies show that prison conditions in the United States routinely undermine human rights (Southern Prison Coalitions 2022), and prosecutors have a direct role in fueling or curtailing mass incarceration. Moreover, the power of local prosecutors is increasingly debated in regards to other aspects of human rights, such as whether to charge police officers for unjustified use of force, or whether to prosecute people seeking or aiding abortions in states where they are criminalized. As I continue data collection and analysis, I look forward to considering nascent questions that emerge with developments on the ground, with a focus on how this research might inform efforts to reduce the harms of the criminal legal system and to strengthen protections for dignity and liberty. The Mack and Mayerfield Fellowship is essential to this work, and I greatly appreciate the support and opportunity from the UW Center for Human Rights.