Prosecutorial Reform Initiative

What is the viability of prosecutorial reform as a way to reduce inequality in the justice system?

Racial and socioeconomic inequality in the justice system is a pervasive problem in the United States. Some have argued that prosecutorial discretion has been a significant factor in the rise of mass incarceration and in inequalities between cases that are dismissed versus those in which charges are filed. In this study, Harvey and colleagues will work with district attorney offices in New York, St. Louis, and Suffolk (MA) counties to assess whether variation in prosecutor decisions for youth ages 18-25 has implications for racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in case, recidivism, and labor market outcomes. The team will use as-if random assignment of cases to assistant district attorneys (ADAs) to estimate each ADA’s propensity to make a particular decision (e.g., to prosecute or not) at each decision point. Propensities across ADAs will form the set of instruments for an instrumental variable analysis. The team will estimate impact of ADA-specific propensities on ADA decisions, controlling for case-specific factors, and on both short-term case outcomes and longer-term recidivism and labor market outcomes. The researchers will also use difference-in-differences analyses to leverage discontinuous policy changes in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to compare outcomes for defendants charged before and after reform. Evidence of how prosecutorial decisions shape inequalities may inform the development of alternative prosecutorial strategies and lead to policy reforms to reduce these inequalities.