County district attorneys are arguably the nation's most powerful government actors. They bear responsibility for prosecuting the vast majority of crimes that afflict our communities. They decide who to charge with what crimes; they choose whether to offer plea bargains and the parameters of those offers; and they do all of this with minimal accountability.

There should be accountability something greater than that found through the ballot. At the dawn of the Republic, American prosecutors were civil servants, assuming their posts through the appointment process. This changed in the 1820s, during the era of Jacksonian Democracy and the movement for greater government transparency. Now, chief county prosecutors are elected in 47 states, including Massachusetts.

But the reality is the electorate seldom pays much attention to district attorney races. Statistics compiled by law professor Ron Wright reveal that, from 1986 to 2006, incumbents prevailed 95% of the time—even more startling, they were unopposed in 85% of those general elections. 

Name recognition and party affiliation, it seems, carry more sway in prosecutorial elections than anything to do with the substance of criminal justice policy. I have bemoaned this situation for years, floating a variety of admittedly unrealistic ideas to inspire the electorate to become more interested in prosecutorial policies and, as a result, make prosecutors more accountable to the people they serve.

I’ve recently found reason for hope. Chief prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland were ousted in primaries, in large part, because of dubious decisions they made in regard to high-profile shootings of African-American civilians by the police. Anita Alvarez, the chief prosecutor in Cook County (Chicago), lost to a challenger, Kim Foxx, who ran on a platform of reform and whose campaign highlighted Alvarez’s sorry record on the topic of prosecuting police officers, especially her lengthy delay in indicting the white policeman who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times. 

Similarly, the chief prosecutor in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Timothy McGinty, fell to a candidate from his own party who questioned McGinty’s handling of the grand jury that looked into the shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and, in particular, criticized McGinty for recommending that the grand jury not issue an indictment. Famously, the grand jury declined to file charges against the two white officers involved in the killing.

Do these developments signal a sea change in how the public views prosecutorial elections? Or are they aberrations, a robust political wave generated by the enormous publicity surrounding the McDonald and Rice cases? Will the public take a closer look at prosecutorial decision-making that is unrelated to police shootings, and hold prosecutors more accountable to the people?

Courts and disciplinary agencies can play a more vigorous role in notifying the public about prosecutorial missteps. Simply put, judges and members of legal ethics boards are the referees between those accused and those who prosecute them. Prosecutors occasionally overstep their bounds in any number of ways—by overcharging defendants at the outset, by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence, by engaging in inflammatory closing arguments and so on. Yet Judges and disciplinary agencies rarely put prosecutors’ feet to the fire. 

Consider the situation in Massachusetts.  A groundbreaking study just released by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) in conjunction with WGBH found that Massachusetts appellate courts have reversed 120 criminal convictions since 1985 based on prosecutorial misconduct.  According to the NECIR study, judges only identified the individual misbehaving prosecutor by name in seven of those opinions.  Our state’s ethics board has also done little to rein in individual prosecutors. The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers surfaced in 1974 to hear complaints against attorneys; NECIR could not find a single case in the Commonwealth in which the BBO disbarred a prosecutor for misconduct, and unearthed only two reprimands of prosecutors, neither of which carried punishment beyond public rebuke.  

Perhaps when cases of prosecutorial misconduct—and the names of those involved–come to light more routinely, voters will be provoked to monitor district attorney offices' professional conduct and hold chief prosecutors in those offices accountable on election day.

Daniel S. Medwed is a professor of law at Northeastern University Law School and a WGBH News commentator.