Street-level rule of law: Prosecutor presence and the fight against corruption


Prosecutors are central figures in the fight against corruption and the rule of law more broadly. Yet we lack systematic evidence about whether they are effective at reducing corruption and, if so, why. I argue that prosecutors' use of autonomy and discretion in anti-corruption work benefits from physical proximity to the communities they monitor. I test this theory through a causal event study of state prosecutors in Brazil, leveraging administrative data on their deployment and behavior across municipalities. I find that prosecutor presence causes increased anti-corruption action targeted at the local government. In response to prosecutor presence, local politicians hire more bureaucrats on the civil service, rather than on temporary contracts – a common vehicle for corruption in this setting. Consistent with prosecutor presence constraining malfeasance, I find that municipal accounts executed right after the arrival of a prosecutor have lower levels of corruption (as measured by federal auditors) than those executed right before. I combine these quasi-experimental findings with insights from a survey of politicians and in-depth interviews with prosecutors. Together, the results suggest that physical presence can make prosecutors more effective at fighting corruption, and provide rare causal evidence of the impact of autonomous prosecutors on local governance.

Working paper

Presented at ETH Zurich (2024), the Aix-Marseille School of Economics (2024), the World Bank (2023), USP (2023), CAF (2023), MIT (2023), IE (2023), the REPAL conference (Washington DC, 2024), the LASA congress (Bogota, 2024), the LACSUG conference (Cartagena, 2024), the IE-Rochester Workshop in Political Economy (Segovia, 2024), and the Latin American Political Methodology Meeting (Recife, 2023).

Guillermo Toral
Guillermo Toral
Assistant Professor of Political Science