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UNC's School of Law wants to know how attorneys influence criminal justice

law school

Students at UNC's School of Law will provide free legal services over spring break with its pro bono program.

A professor in the School of Law at UNC is close to completing a study on all of the country's district attorneys and their influence on state criminal justice policy. 

Law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick launched the Prosecutors and Politics Project in 2018. She received some funding from The Vital Projects Fund and the Charles Koch Foundation.

“The goal of the Prosecutors and Politics Project is to find out more about the role of politics in the criminal justice system generally, and for prosecutors specifically,” Hessick said. 

Hessick said researchers first determined how many elected prosecutors exist in the country and created a database containing their information. The second part of the project will focus on tracking election cycles and statistics, including campaign donations. 

“When it comes to the criminal justice system, prosecutors wield a lot of power,” Hessick said. 

The public doesn't know much about prosecutor elections, Hessick said, and there is little to no existing research about them. 

Campaign finance regulations are not as strict in district attorney elections as in a presidential election, Matthew Baruch, a third-year law student at UNC who worked on the project last year, said. Hessick’s database will eventually be able to track potential campaign finance violations at the district attorney and prosecutor level. 

“District attorneys are individual county attorneys, so if they’re receiving money from someone out of a different county or especially out of a different state, there are definitely alarm bells that went off,” Baruch said. 

Hessick sought outside funding to support this project. She received initial funding from The Vital Projects Fund, a charitable foundation that values research on human rights and criminal justice reform. 

The project also received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation earlier this year, after meeting with a foundation representative who spoke on UNC’s campus last year. 

“Those of us who study the criminal justice system noticed several years ago that the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute started becoming very active in criminal justice reform,” Hessick said. 

The Koch brothers are known for their libertarian and conservative ties. However, Hessick said research on criminal justice reform is a non-partisan issue. 

“To say that this is just about left-right politics misunderstands what the criminal justice system is and why people would want to change it,” Hessick said.

Baruch said he believes the Koch Foundation views Hessick's research as a public good, bringing more transparency to the political system. He said academics and politics do not always need to be intertwined. 

“I don’t think there should be trepidation that clouds academic research simply because of a name without any further investigation or research being done into the nature of the grant,” Baruch said. 

Hessick said her research is only credible if it is independent.

“If I wanted people to tell me what I should work on, I’d still be a lawyer at a law firm,” Hessick said. 

Jennifer Cofer, a third-year law student at UNC who is working on the project with Hessick, also stressed the importance of independent research. 

“We’re not being influenced by those organizations,” Cofer said. “We’re bringing them research that we are interested in."

Hessick said she wants her work to be so good that it speaks for itself, regardless of who is funding her projects. 

“I’m here because I think I can identify the sort of information that is missing from this area of the law and this area of American policy,” Hessick said. 

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Hessick said her team hopes to finish the project and publish their findings this December or January.