In her teaching, Henry emphasizes the role played by prosecutors at the center of the punishment process: they decide whether to bring forth formal charges, determine the appropriate charge for an offense, and play a key part in the plea-bargaining process, now the primary mode of conviction for the overwhelming majority of offenders. They acquire these abilities as elected officials and must regularly participate in what may be hotly contested local elections.
To zero in on prosecutors as gatekeepers and powerful decision-makers within the criminal justice system, Henry’s first research goal is to create a much-needed data set of the more than 2,400 prosecutors across the U.S.
Her second task involves gathering data about the types of programs, initiatives, and platforms county-level progressive prosecutors advocate for during their election campaigns. She wants to understand how these prosecutors react when they encounter campaign support or opposition from constituents, police organizations, media, or other elected officials.
BIPOC prosecutors frequently meet with particular challenges when running for office or implementing criminal justice reforms, based on racial stereotyping or skepticism about their ability to ensure public safety. Others in public office may erect obstacles that affect their ability to deliver on proposals. Interviews in the third stage of the project will help identify the means they use to cope with these pressures. To what degree are their initiatives successful, and how do they process defeat?
Another line of inquiry will ask: What are the implications of “progressive” as an identity marker in particular communities? If some BIPOC prosecutors reject the progressive label, what motivates them to do so? And what happens when a BIPOC prosecutor is judged as insufficiently progressive by critics more focused on class than race and gender, for example, as was sometimes the case with Kamala Harris?