Descriptive Representation and Prosecutorial Discretion: Race, Sex, and Carceral Disparities

AuthorAnna Gunderson
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(6) 823836
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221082638
Descriptive Representation and Prosecutorial
Discretion: Race, Sex, and Carceral Disparities
Anna Gunderson
Conversations around criminal legal reform often center around prosecutorial discretion. Yet, we know little about how the
demographic characteristics of prosecutors inf‌luence case outcomes and race- and sex-based carceral disparities. I investigate
this question using an original dataset of all county prosecutors in the US in 2001 and 2007 and f‌ind som e differences between
non-white and female prosecutors and white and male prosecutors. Black prosecutors are associated with fewe r felony closures
and convictions, Latinx prosecutors are associated with lower Latinx jail populations, and female prosecutors are associated
with lower female and Black jail populations, lower Black prison admissions, and lower jail admissions rates. These f‌indings
suggest prosecutorial discretion is an important plank of criminal legal reform, and increasing the diversity of those off‌ices may
act as an important and initial step to limit the negative effects of the carceral state on particular communities.
prosecutors, descriptive representation, race, gender, criminal justice system
In 2019, Wesley Bell became the f‌irst Black county attorney
in St. Louis, Missouri after wide frustration with his pre-
decessors handling of the Michael Brown case, a Black man
shot and killed by a white police off‌icer in 2014. Bells
election came in the wake of wide support from community
activists seeking to institute wide reforms in that county: his
election is a testament to the hard, hard organizing work of a
lot of people who really pounded the pavement. The point
now is to make sure that while he has our support, we also
hold him accountable.
Bells election lays bare the tensions
between communities and prosecutorsoff‌ices, the sheer
amount of discretion prosecutors wield in the criminal legal
system, and also the public perceptions of how prosecutors
ought to behave on the basis of their race or sex. Growing
attention to the vast inf‌luence prosecutors have on subsequent
outcomes in the criminal legal system and their role in the
creation of the carceral state (e.g., Pfaff, 2017) has brought up
questions regarding the determinants of prosecutorial be-
havior. What leads to variation in case outcomes and racial
imbalance in our criminal legal system? What characteristics
of prosecutors are consequential in predicting variation in
these outcomes? And, given expectations about the role of
prosecutorial diversity in criminal legal reform (e.g., Lowens
et al., 2020;The Sentencing Project, 2008) and expectations
about how diverse prosecutors behave, do non-white or fe-
male prosecutors prosecute differently?
Chief prosecutors are endowed with immense power to
inf‌luence the criminal legal system, as they alone decide to
prosecute or not, what crimes to charge an individual with,
and the overall prosecutorial priorities of their districts (Davis,
A. J., 2007;Davis, K. C., 1969).Though most prosecutors are
elected, 94 to 95% of prosecutor incumbents win their elec-
tions (Hessick & Morse, 2020;Wrigh, 2008;Wright, 201 4),
suggesting that prosecutors have wide discretion (and voter
approval) to conduct their off‌ices as they see f‌it. Moreover,
judicial review of prosecutorial charging decisions is nearly
non-existent (Pfaff, 2017) and judges act as a weak check
against prosecutorial aggression. With their vast discretion,
prosecutors areperhaps the most essential actor in thecriminal
legal system and act relatively independently, without over-
sight. However, despite this immense power, we know rela-
tively little abouthow individual characteristics of prosecutors
affects their decision-making.
This paper investigates how the race and sex of chief
prosecutors inf‌luences case outcomes. Though there have
been studies of this kind looking at individual off‌ices (Baker
& Hassan, 2020;Gilbert, 2018) or in the federal context,
among U.S. Attorneys (Farrell et al., 2009;Ward et al., 2009),
Department of Political Science, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge,
Corresponding Author:
Anna Gunderson, Department of Political Science, Louisiana State University,
240 Stubbs Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-2804, USA.

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