Accountable Justice Project — General Support


Accountable Justice Project staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $350,000 to the Proteus Fund to support the launch of the Accountable Justice Project (AJP). The majority of the grant will be used to hire staff to conduct nationwide research on misconduct by elected prosecutors and to share this information with a wide audience through media engagement.

1. Background

1.1 The cause

This grant falls within our work on criminal justice reform, one of our focus areas within U.S. policy.

We have previously identified changing the behavior of prosecutors as one of our strategic goals within criminal justice reform. We believe that one obstacle to increasing prosecutorial accountability is a lack of public awareness of, and media attention to, the impact of prosecutorial decision-making. It is our impression that much of the public has little information on the role of prosecutors, and that to the extent the public does think about prosecutors, it largely perceives prosecutors as reliable law enforcement actors doing positive work to protect communities. We believe that these two factors contribute to a high proportion of prosecutor elections being uncontested, as well as a general lack of public attention to the behavior of district attorneys’ (DAs’) offices.

We believe there is evidence that drawing public attention to prosecutorial misconduct can generate significant and effective pressure for reform. For example, in 2015, a coalition of advocates worked to draw attention to harmful behavior by Caddo Parish DA Dale Cox. Following a significant amount of media attention on Cox’s comments on the death penalty,1 Cox did not run for reelection in the fall of 2015.

1.2 The organization

The Accountable Justice Project (AJP)’s goals include:

  • Ensuring that local prosecutors adhere to their legal obligations (e.g. disclosing exculpatory evidence when required by law).
  • Encouraging prosecutors to reduce the severity of their charging and sentencing recommendations when appropriate.
  • Reducing what AJP sees as prosecutors’ disproportionate influence over criminal justice reform discussions in local legislatures (which AJP believes often contributes to legislatures’ failure to pass reform measures).
  • Ensuring that constituencies are aware of misconduct committed by their District Attorney, where applicable. AJP plans to target prosecutorial misconduct nationwide with the goal of contributing to a national media narrative that 1) prosecutorial misconduct is widespread and 2) it is feasible to influence prosecutors to engage in best practices and reduce misconduct through public pressure.

AJP’s proposed strategy is to identify, record, categorize, and expose prosecutorial misconduct, serve as a source of cross-county and national analysis, and attract substantial media attention to prosecutorial misconduct as it occurs.

2. About the grant

2.1 Proposed activities

AJP plans to expand on the strategy of exposing prosecutorial misconduct and overcharging, which was effective in Caddo Parish. It hopes that drawing public attention to harmful DA practices will help to:

  • Reduce “tough-on-crime” rhetoric, which can lead to excessive punishment and overcharging.
  • Incentivize elected DAs to address and discourage misconduct by their line attorneys (attorneys who work with them).
  • Encourage DAs to embrace data-driven reforms aimed at reducing mass incarceration and increasing public safety.
  • Create a political climate where reform-minded DA candidates are encouraged to run for office.
  • Foster a perception that DAs can be influenced by public pressure, and increase willingness to hold them accountable locally and in state legislatures.

AJP plans to hire:

  • Two fellows to generate, vet, and fact check information on prosecutorial misconduct.
  • An in-house communications staff member to prepare the information AJP collects for distribution, using plans outlined by a communications professional or firm.

Rob Smith, a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School, will lead AJP, including training and supervising AJP’s new staff.

AJP currently plans for its fellows to produce 10-15 research products in the first year (though it may revise this plan as the project gets underway), which will include in-depth reports as well as narrower investigations of specific examples and themes of prosecutorial misconduct.

Given the number of potentially promising story leads AJP has already gathered, the organization estimates that it will likely be able to see, within three months of staff hiring, whether the information it disseminates is being picked up by a substantial number of media outlets, and, by six months, whether the information is having a lasting, positive impact on national discussion. AJP expects an increase in stories about prosecutorial misconduct to provide material for a range of advocates to use in calling for comprehensive reforms in local jurisdictions and at the national level.

2.2 Budget and room for more funding

We are not aware of any other current funding prospects, apart from our grant, for AJP’s prosecutor research.

2.3 Case for the grant

While a number of groups are interested in research on elected prosecutors, we are not aware of any other group with staff dedicated to working on the issue full-time. Thus we believe this project will fill a gap in the current landscape, and we hope it will be able to share its research products with other organizations that have an interest in holding prosecutors accountable. Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform, has also been particularly impressed with the staffing for the project, which brings both expertise on this issue and what appears to us to be a well-formed strategy for bringing attention to prosecutorial misconduct and creating demand for reform.

AJP estimates that about 100 reporters and about 500 bloggers cover this issue nationwide, but with limited staffing and with insufficient primary sources related to prosecutors in particular. AJP aims to publicly provide material and analysis about prosecutorial misconduct, as well as educate journalists to better understand local issues and provide useful context (for example, by explaining how particular prosecutorial practices do, or do not, align with professional standards). AJP also hopes that, as its research accumulates, reporters will write cross-county articles supporting the narrative that prosecutorial misconduct is a systemic problem. We are not sure how many stories of misconduct will be necessary to shift the narrative in this way, but we expect full-time work from AJP’s two staff fellows to provide a reasonable chance of achieving measurable progress after a year.

Accordingly, our aim with this grant is to bring increased attention to prosecutorial misconduct and to shift the national discussion around prosecutorial behavior. If successful, we believe this is likely to have positive long-term effects such as:

  • Expanding opportunities for the election of new prosecutors.
  • Inspiring the creation of commissions and task forces to do further in-depth research on prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Reducing the degree of deference that legislators and media outlets give to prosecutors’ positions on criminal justice reform issues.

2.4 Risks and reservations

We believe there is some risk that AJP’s work may not have much impact if media outlets do not find its data clear or interesting enough to report on (though we do not expect this to be the case). We also think it is likely that some counties that AJP researches will not produce useful information or stories that attract attention.

3. Plans for learning and follow-up

3.1 Goals for the grant

We expect this grant to lead to a significant increase in the amount, quality, depth, and breadth of media coverage of prosecutorial misconduct, using research done by AJP’s fellows. We hope that this will lead to some of the following:

  • Commentary and discussion about the implications of prosecutorial misconduct, including critical reflection from lawyers about the causes and ramifications of such widespread misconduct.
  • Increased discussion, particularly at law schools, of potential reforms to prosecutorial policies and practices.
  • Support from leading prosecutors for significant reforms.

3.2 Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with AJP staff every 3-6 months for the duration of the grant, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

4. Our process

After becoming aware of Rob Smith’s work on a similar project concerning prosecutors and the death penalty, Chloe approached Rob about expanding his work to focus on prosecutors in non death penalty counties. After a series of conversations, they agreed on the formation of the Accountable Justice Project as the right container for this work.

5. Sources

Aviv 2015 Source (archive)
King 2015 Source (archive)
Robertson 2015 Source