Article | Criminal Law
Prosecutors and Mass Incarceration
by Shima Baradaran Baughman* & Megan S. Wright†
From Vol. 94, No. 5 (2020)
94 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1123 (2020)
Keywords: Prosecutor Discretion, Charging
It has long been postulated that America’s mass incarceration phenomenon is driven by increased drug arrests, draconian sentencing, and the growth of the prison industry. Yet among the major players—legislators, judges, police, and prosecutors—one of these is shrouded in mystery. While laws on the books, judicial sentencing, and police arrests are all public and transparent, prosecutorial charging decisions are made behind closed doors with little oversight or public accountability. Indeed, without notice by commentators, during the last ten years or more, crime has fallen, and police have cut arrests accordingly, but prosecutors have actually increased the ratio of criminal court filings per arrest. Why? This Article presents quantitative and qualitative data from the first randomized controlled experiment studying how prosecutors nationally decide whether to charge a defendant. We find rampant variation and multiple charges for a single crime along with the lowest rates of declination in a national study. Crosscutting this empirical analysis is an exploration of Supreme Court and prosecutor standards that help guide prosecutorial decisions. This novel approach makes important discoveries about prosecutorial charging that are critical to understanding mass incarceration.
* Associate Dean of Faculty Research and Development, Presidential Scholar and Professor of Law, University of Utah College of Law. We thank the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies for their support of this project (Yale ISPS ID P20-001). Christopher Robertson was critical to the underlying empirical work discussed in this Article. We appreciate the feedback received at the Annual Center for Empirical Legal Studies Conference hosted at the University of Michigan. Special thanks to John Rappaport, Sonja Starr, Rachel Barkow, Carissa Hessick, Darryl Brown, Sim Gill, Andrew Ferguson, Jeffrey Bellin, L. Song Richardson, Cathy Hwang, Andy Hessick, Christopher Griffin, Ron Wright, and John Pfaff. We appreciate the comments of the Rocky Mountain Junior Conference, and the University of Utah faculty research grant for making this research possible. I am grateful for research assistance from Jacqueline Rosen, Alyssa Campbell, Amylia Brown, Carley Herrick, Tyler Hubbard, Emily Mabey, Olivia Ortiz, Haden Gobel, Hope Collins, Rebekah Watts, Melissa Bernstein, Alicia Brillon, Kerry Lohmeier and Ross McPhail. I am grateful for the careful editing from the Southern California Law Review staff and editors, especially Caleb Downs, Tia Kerkhof, Mindy Vo, and Samuel Clark-Clough. I am especially thankful for empirical support from Jessica Morrill. We are thankful to all of the prosecutors who nationally participated in this experiment. IRB 69654 (University of Utah).
† Assistant Professor of Law, Medicine, and Sociology, Penn State Law and Penn State College of Medicine; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. Thanks to Laureen O’Brien, Ellen Hill, Leann Jones, Danielle Curtin, and Joseph Radochonski for research assistance during data collection. Thanks to Veronica Rosenberger for assistance with qualitative data analysis.