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Carissa Hessick with the UNC School of Law is interested in increasing transparency in the election of prosecutors. Through her research at the school of law, she hopes to create a national database that shows campaign contributions given to elected prosecutors.
Hessick says that she does not believe many people know that local prosecutors are elected nor the amount of influence they have.
“I don’t think that they appreciate all of the important stuff that prosecutors do,” Hessick says. “Prosecutors are really powerful individuals. We all think that the legislature controls what’s legal or illegal, but the prosecutors play a big role in that too.”
Hessick’s research focuses on measuring the discretion that prosecutors use in their judgement on individual cases.
“Part of what we’re trying to do at the Prosecutors in Politics Project is the fact that there’s this discretion. Try to figure out what that discretion is and then also look at the extent to which the public, when they’re voting, understands these important decisions that prosecutors are making before they cast their votes.”
Listen to part one of the interview with Professor Carissa Hessick:
The Prosecutors in Politics Project grew out of her own tweet about billionaire investor George Soros having made campaign contributions to a district attorney in Chicago.
Hessick encouraged one of her students to look into campaign donations following the news that Soros had given money in the Chicago district attorney’s election.
Soon after, news broke that Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance had taken money in high profile cases where he did not bring changes. One of the cases involved ex-Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the other involved two of President Donald Trump’s children.
“The NYPD wanted them to bring charges and Vance’s office said no,” Hessick says. “And then it broke in the news that as he was making these decisions, he was also accepting campaign contributions from lawyers working on those cases, so it caused a big scandal and that’s actually sort of how the project was born.”
Hessick says that there’s no limit on district attorney candidates being able to accept these sorts of campaign contributions and there’s no ethical limit on them being able to accept it either.
“I said, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions here, but I bet he’d gets a lot of campaign contributions from lawyers because it seems like other DA’s do as well.
“And someone who runs a foundation, and that foundation funds criminal justice work, saw that tweet and reached out to ask whether UNC would it be in a position to do a nationwide survey of this and if so, his foundation would fund it, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
That foundation was the Vital Projects Fund, Inc., which has interests in human rights and criminal justice reform.
“One of the conditions of the funding was that we make this information publicly available,” Hessick says. “So we’ve been working with UNC Dataverse, which is this really great initiative that the school has where they allow researchers to post big amounts of data so that it’s available for other people, and so we’ve been posting the data that we found on the Dataverse and it’s generated some interest.”
Listen to part two of the interview with Professor Carissa Hessick: