DENVER – A study of prosecutorial decisions made by the Denver District Attorney’s Office released Wednesday found “a persistent set of disadvantages faced by Black and Hispanic defendants” compared to white people going through the criminal justice system.
The study looked at thousands of felony cases charged between July 2017 and June 2018 in Denver. Authors also interviewed 20 prosecutors from the district attorney’s office. The study was commissioned by District Attorney Beth McCann, funded by the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver, and authored by Stacey Bosick, the interim associate vice president of academic programs and dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at Sonoma State University.
The report found that white people were twice as likely as Black and Hispanic people to have their cases deferred, meaning charges or the entire case could be dismissed if the defendant meets requirements of the court.
“There is a discrepancy, and people of various races and ethnicities do have different outcomes,” McCann said in a discussion about the report.
The report also found that white defendants were more likely than their counterparts to have drug felony cases handled in drug court rather than in district court, and that Black defendants were more likely to have their charges dismissed than white or Hispanic defendants.
The report says Black defendants were 31% more likely to have cases dismissed than white and Hispanics after cases were accepted for prosecution. But the author wrote that no data was available to see if there were racial disparities in what cases prosecutors initially accepted for prosecution in the first place.
The report found no racial disparities in who received plea agreements and how the charges changed with said deals. But Bosick also wrote that some of the study was hampered because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.
“The outcomes of criminal cases are impacted by the specifics of a case including the strength of evidence and victim characteristics, neither or which are consistently collected in the system. While deeper review of original case files was planned, this work was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bosick wrote. “The study is therefore limited in its ability to provide full context for the patterns described in this report. The study’s measure of plea agreements was also limited.”
The study looked at decisions surrounding drug court referrals, plea agreements, case dismissals and deferred judgments. It made four recommendations on looking into why and when cases were dismissed, more closely looking at people’s eligibility for alternative case outcomes, improving data collection and review and increasing awareness and support for racial justice.
Included in those recommendations are suggestions that prosecutors have more time to review certain cases within the limitations of statute so they can have a better scope of the evidence before moving forward with the case.
“Rejecting cases destined for dismissal at this initial stage could prevent collateral damage to defendants, including stigma, family disruption, and lost employment,” the report says. “The need for additional time should be weighed against current statute and the potential for collateral consequences of keeping individuals in custody for long periods of time.”
The recommendations say that better data-keeping policies on case refusals and dismissals with respect to race would benefit the understanding of future data and also help better drill down some of the unique reasons why some cases get deferred or accepted for drug court and others do not.
“As previously noted, interviewees described Black and Hispanic defendants as disproportionately more likely to have criminal histories for a variety of reasons, including improper stops and over policing. Therefore, even if criteria are applied equally, certain types of defendants may be more likely to benefit – or be negatively impacted,” the report says.
The recommendations call for more diversity within the district attorney’s office to better understand issues affecting communities of color and to establish more clear guidelines with police to improve their case investigation that leads to cases being charged be prosecutors.
McCann said in a news conference discussing the report that some of the recommendations surrounding working with the police department and using other courts for certain types of charges had already been implemented prior to the release of the report. And other laws have changed in Colorado since the time period of charges at which the report looked, especially surrounding how most drug cases are charged.
The report recommends the district attorney’s office continue to collect and analyze data and implement changes in accordance with what they find. It also recommends future investigation of juvenile and misdemeanor cases, as well as looking at whether jail time is disproportionately recommended based on a person’s race.
Brother Jeff Fard said in an interview Wednesday that the systemic disparities in criminal justice are deep-seated, and said he appreciated those disparities are now being brought to greater light over the past year or two.
“This is a long-standing issue. I’ve been looking at it for over 35 years. What’s interesting is that this topic has begun to get the attention it deserves,” he said.
Fard said he hopes that studies and reports like the one released Wednesday could do more to create a better criminal justice system.
“How do you get to the root of systemic bias within the criminal justice system and have a system that has, at the very least, equitable outcomes?” he said. “I’m glad that they’re digging into it, but the highlights of the study show persistent discrepancies, I believe is the word, among Blacks and Hispanics.”
Advocates for criminal justice reform like Dr. Robert Davis, the executive director of Seasoned With Grace UnBoxed, say the study is, at the very least, an honest examination of a system still broken.
“Too often, we bury our heads in the sand: ‘The people here are good people. There are no biases.’ The reality is there are internal biases just in how we grew up,” Davis said. “…It takes courage to say, ‘We still have work to do, but we can also celebrate some successes.”
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