A few months ago, I got a call from a reporter at the Economist asking what I thought about a proposal in the U.K. to make local police chief an elected position. The measure failed, but I thought it was a pretty interesting question. The more I’ve thought about that question since, the more I’m unsure of the answer.
I’ve written a bit before about the problems with over-politicizing the criminal justice system. When you look at prosecutors, for example, guys like Forrest Allgood or Ed Jagels have continued to get reelected despite some pretty egregious misconduct, both by them and their subordinates. And the last 30 years have basically been one long lesson in the perils of mob-based criminal justice policy.
But then, the courts and bar associations have also done very little to discipline and hold rogue prosecutors accountable. While the old axiom that a thinly disguised Bill of Rights probably couldn’t win as a ballot referendum in most states today is probably true, appointed judges haven’t exactly gone out of their way to preserve, say, the Fourth Amendment, either. If it’s a bad idea to look to the electoral process for accountability, where should we look?
We have started to see at least some voter backlash, most notably the two judges in Colorado whom voters refused to retain after learning the two had withheld exculpatory evidence in an innocence case during their time in the DA’s office. The reelection of Dallas County, Texas, DA Craig Watkins was encouraging, too.
I’ve seen quite a bit of academic research into the effects of electing judges (most of it critical), but I’ve seen very little on what effect elections have on prosecutors, and if electing them is preferable to, say, having a governor appoint district attorneys the way a president appoints U.S. attorneys. It would be also interesting to see studies comparing sheriffs (who are generally elected) to police chiefs (who are generally appointed), and what effect each process has on effectiveness, accountability, and civil rights. I haven’t been able to find any such studies.
So what say you, readers? Would choosing more of our criminal justice officials through elections be a good or bad thing? If not through elections, how do we hold bad police chiefs and prosecutors more accountable?