In the wake of police-involved deaths of unarmed men in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore, more attention than ever has been paid to the racial makeup of America's police departments. It's certainly something to consider: Research has long established that police diversity helps boost credibility and positive relationships in the communities they serve. But until now, little attention has been paid to examining the pool of officials who make decisions on criminal charges or negotiate sentencing. It turns out that 95 percent of elected U.S. prosecutors are white, and in most states, almost none of them are black, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Technology and Civic Life and released last week in a new report by the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign.
We generally pay more attention to high-profile mayoral, congressional, and presidential elections. However, because of the power district attorneys hold over who is prosecuted for what crimes (decisions that are often subjected to personal as well as institutional bias), this is the election choice that can make or break criminal justice and sentencing reform at the local level. The New York Times analyzed the study that examined the race and gender of the nation's 2,437 elected prosecutors and found that white men make up 79 percent of the nation's prosecutors. Sixteen percent are white women. In 14 states, all of the elected prosecutors were white.
Those numbers are enough to give anyone pause. On a pure racial equity level, since the research also uncovered that nearly 85 percent of elected prosecutors run unopposed, this could easily point to the need for more diligent focus on advancement opportunities for attorneys of color. But, the implications of the study go far deeper when you consider the life-altering power that prosecutors hold.
In an article last May for The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin gave a chilling synopsis of exactly how much authority prosecutors wield:
The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops. Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison. And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.
In concrete terms, strategic decisions by Florida prosecutors in 2013 drew questions about whether George Zimmerman was overcharged for Trayvon Martin's death. The questions resurfaced with a different slant a year later when unarmed teen Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson policeman. CNN reported at the time that citizens were growing concerned over St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch's ability to be impartial.
Just like how racial imbalance in police departments can erode trust between officers and the communities they serve, racial imbalances in DA offices have serious implications over whether fair outcomes are possible for those facing trial. A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress showed that blacks are more likely to be arrested, and nearly 30 percent are more likely to go to prison and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. But because most prosecutors are elected, the study also offers an interesting suggestion at how communities can help to address systemic bias: elect a more diverse pool of prosecutors.
Prosecutors may hold an inordinate amount of power and authority, but they were granted that authority by popular vote. If current prosecutors are more diligent about making diversity a factor in identifying and recruiting their successors — and voters demand a pool of candidates that represents their own blend of race and gender — other towns might avoid stirring the cauldron of resentment, fear, and distrust that we saw bubble over in Baltimore and Ferguson.