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Putting Prosecutors on the Stand in Probe of Mass Incarceration

Headshot of Chika O. Okafor
Photo courtesy of Chika Okafor

Chika O. Okafor GSAS ’23 is a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard University.

He earned a BA in economics (with honors) from Stanford University and a JD from Yale Law School, and he has also worked on local, national, and international policy initiatives, including with the Chicago Public Schools. With support from a Radcliffe Engaged grant, Okafor is studying the role of prosecutors in the US criminal justice system and their relationship to mass incarceration.

In addition to your academic credentials, you also have experience influencing policy. Why is it important to merge academia and policy?

The engine behind what informs my work, whether it’s in academia or in policy, is that I’m very committed and passionate about working to address our social problems. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experiences before coming to the PhD program that allowed me to directly work on those social problems, whether it was in school districts or human rights work.

The research that I pursue in academia is continuing that same thread—my research centers on very policy-relevant areas. I focus on areas that have very clear implications for how we structure our society. It’s all about solving problems. I view economics as one tool that you can use in working toward solving persistent social problems.

How did you come to your current research project? 

When it comes to the criminal justice system, there are a lot of people who work in this space who believe that the prosecutor has more influence over sentencing outcomes than any other actor—more influential than the judges, than the juries, than the defense attorneys. I became interested in learning more about the relationship of prosecutors to the rising incarceration levels that have happened across the United States since the 1970s and 1980s.

A lot of the past research on this topic has been more descriptive. It hasn’t used sophisticated econometric techniques to measure and understand the extent to which election cycles and other characteristics of the justice system might be affecting the way that prosecutors implement and work in their respective jurisdictions. I’m also curious about the extent to which career concerns—whether it’s future political considerations or concerns for career advancement—might affect the decision-making of local prosecutors.

Knowing your policy background, I imagine that you want this research to have a broad impact. What is your desired outcome from this project?

My goal is to advance our understanding of the dynamics that are at play in criminal justice sentencing outcomes and to understand whether there are potential pain points or areas of opportunity to make improvements. I hope to shine a light on the incentive structure and means of accountability that prosecutors face—as well as on opportunities to improve those systems. There has been a lot of conversation on both sides of the aisle when it comes to how we should reform or improve the criminal justice system, given the high levels of incarceration. My goal is for this research to be a helpful contribution to ongoing efforts to make the justice system better throughout the country. Improving the criminal justice system not only at its core makes our society more just—it helps preserve human dignity—but it also helps realize all our hopes for a safer and more peaceful society.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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