Political science major Talia Scott ’19 knew that she wanted to study criminal justice reform in her senior thesis. As a peace, justice, and human rights concentrator, she had studied the ways in which the American criminal justice system’s aggressive sentencing can leave offenders disadvantaged for life, and so she wanted to study a growing reform movement that is the very antithesis of these “tough on crime” policies: prosecutorial reform.
Prosecutorial reform is a burgeoning legal movement led by prosecutors and district attorneys—the latter of which are largely elected officials—based on the fact that they make almost all of the important decisions regarding sentencing, from who is detained before their court date to what charges are filed. By making these decisions with compassion and privileging what is best for the individual and their community, these activists are providing accused people with opportunities as opposed to jail time.
Because many of the actors involved in this movement are elected officials, Scott’s thesis focused on the relationship between electability and the activist politics of prosecutorial reform movements.
“The presence of reform-minded district attorney candidates marked an important shift in American politics and the American criminal justice system overall,” said Scott. “This warranted the question at the core of my thesis: why do political candidates and challengers take reform-minded or progressive stances that diverge from the traditional stances and positions of their party?”
Scott arrived at this question after months of refinement with her thesis advisor, Associate Professor of Political Science Zachary Oberfield, but the process truly began during her summer internship with MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization. With MDRC, she studied organizations dedicated to eliminating the barriers to societal reentry for incarcerated parents, which helped her further understand the lifelong consequences of severe prison sentencing.
“My research at MDRC informed my understanding of some of the consequences of incarceration, especially for Black families, and my subsequent thesis topic addressed a way to tackle some of the structural problems in the U.S. criminal justice system,” said Scott, who also concentrated in Africana studies. “As a scholar and activist, I immediately saw how the prosecutorial reform movement was a byproduct of the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and felt committed to writing a thesis that continued to amplify the movement’s efforts for racial justice and criminal justice reform.”
Ultimately, the prosecutorial reform movement provided Scott with a hope-filled answer to her core research question: by studying how and why district attorney candidates diverge from traditional party stances, she discovered a wealth of activist politicians whose candidacy and work stem from the fundamental belief that compassion is the most fruitful way to combat crime.
“My biggest takeaway from this project is that elected officials or political candidates do act in ways that advance their own beliefs and interests independent of the desires of constituents and political parties, contrary to popular opinion about what motivates their behavior or actions,” she said. “Overall, I learned that the prosecutorial reform movement is the result of a growing shift away from the standard law-and-order or ‘tough on crime’ approach that has plagued the U.S. criminal justice system.”
What are the implications of your thesis research?
Most scholarship that seeks to explain the behavior of political candidates or elected officials generally focus on members of Congress or congressional candidates. My thesis research contributes to this scholarship by expanding explanations of political behavior to include candidates and elected officials in municipal elections such as local district attorney elections. Furthermore, my thesis research significantly highlights the role of political candidates’ or elected official’s personal beliefs and goals in driving behavior, which has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. My thesis highlights and posits that even though political candidates are expected to be responsive to their constituents and political parties, they may diverge due to internal cues that are important to them and reflective of their personal experiences, values, and self-interest. I hope my thesis research aids other researchers or academics who want to better understand candidate behavior as well as those who want to conceptualize the shifting nature of the U.S. criminal justice system amidst the emergence of progressive prosecutors. Moreover, I hope other researchers and academics see the value and importance of continuing to study the role of prosecutors and prosecutorial power in addition to generally studying district attorney elections.
What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do with helping to guide your future career path?
I am currently working as a corporate legal assistant at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore in New York with plans to attend law school in fall 2021. While working on my thesis I interned for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Larry Krasner, and I think both experiences provided me with my “why” for law school. Through my thesis research, I learned about how the criminal justice system came to be so “tough on crime,” as well as how and why it was becoming more progressive, and I witnessed the power of progressive prosecutors committed to criminal justice reform. Most importantly, I witnessed how the criminal justice system failed so many individuals, especially individuals who look like me and members of my community or come from other minority backgrounds. As a result of my thesis research, I feel even more committed to fighting for a more fair and equitable criminal justice system whether it’s through my career or personal activism.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.