The effect of the election of prosecutors on criminal trials


We examine whether elections of public prosecutors influence the mix of cases taken to trial versus plea bargained. A theoretical model is constructed wherein voters use outcomes of the criminal justice system as a signal of prosecutors’ quality, leading to a distortion in the mix of cases taken to trial. Using data from North Carolina we test whether reelection pressures lead to (a) an increase in the number and proportion of convictions from jury trials and (b) a decrease in the average sanction obtained in both jury trials and pleas. Our empirical findings are consistent with our theoretical predictions.

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  1. 1.

    The three states that do not elect public prosecutors are Alaska, Connecticut, and New Jersey (Perry 2006).

  2. 2.

    We assume that the choices of whether to file charges and which charges to file have already been made.

  3. 3.

    The analysis is unaffected if one assumes that s=s(θ), where \(\frac{ds}{d\theta}\geq0\).

  4. 4.

    Assuming different costs of trials for the two parties does not make any substantive change in the analysis.

  5. 5.

    See McCannon (2013) for an analysis of the effect of prosecutor elections on mistakes and appeal[s].

  6. 6.

    With the assumption that p q (θ)s and g(θ) are continuous functions and c is bounded from above, the intermediate value theorem guarantees that these thresholds (and all thresholds derived throughout the analysis) exist.

  7. 7.

    This setup is similar to the incumbent-challenger models of political agency, which consider the reelection motives of political leaders (Besley 2006). It is possible to make b type-dependent as well, i.e., a better prosecutor could also enjoy higher utility in period 2 because society’s welfare is higher. As it does not change the primary predictions of the model, such complications are not presented.

  8. 8.

  9. 9.

    In fact, the National Center for State Courts ranks North Carolina as having the most “mandatory” of sentencing guidelines in the country.

  10. 10.

    The size of the gap between the minimum and maximum sanction is fixed by the sentencing guidelines. Thus, only the maximum is considered here.

  11. 11. provides the data and a description of the estimation procedures used.

  12. 12.

    Labor market data are obtained from The labor force participation rate is statistically insignificant in the results and, hence, is omitted. Furthermore, minor issues arising from the merging of the data, such as aggregating county-level data into district-level observations and public financing issues are discussed in detail in an online appendix (

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

    The conviction data cover fiscal years beginning on July 1. Since the general election is in November of the calendar year, the election is recorded in our data as being in the same year if the general election falls within the fiscal year. This implies, though, that the primaries occur in the prior year within the dataset.

  15. 15.

    The first two columns include all socio-economic controls. The third and fourth columns include the sentencing guideline controls along with population density. The specification with never as the independent variable and the average maximum sanction as the dependent variable is omitted because of never’s statistical insignificance.


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We thank the chief editor, associate editor, three anonymous referees, Juste Abramovaite, Toke Aidt, Ralph Bailey, Anindya Banerjee, Marco Barassi, Matthew Cole, Allin Cottrell, Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, Rob Elliott, Rosa Ferrer, Amanda Griffith, Andy Hanssen, Toby Kendall, Clare Leaver, Tito Pietra, Peter Postl, and seminar participants at the University of Birmingham, the University of Sassari, St. Bonaventure University, and the Workshop on Law, Economics, and Institutions for their comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Bryan C. McCannon.

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Bandyopadhyay, S., McCannon, B.C. The effect of the election of prosecutors on criminal trials. Public Choice 161, 141–156 (2014).

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  • Crime
  • Election
  • Plea bargaining
  • Prosecutor
  • Trials