Black and Hispanic people face “persistent set of disadvantages” in Denver courts, study of prosecutor data finds

Black and Hispanic people charged with felonies in Denver face “a persistent set of disadvantages” compared to their white peers, according to a study of decisions made by the Denver District Attorney’s Office.

The study, released Wednesday, found that white people facing drug charges were more likely than Black or Hispanic people to be referred to drug court programs and that white defendants were twice as likely as Black or Hispanic people to have their case deferred. Case deferrals allow a defendant a chance to have charges or their entire case dismissed if they meet certain requirements.

The researchers did not find any racial disparities in plea agreements.

The researchers also found that charges against Black people were more likely to be dismissed than charges against White or Hispanic people. This might sound like an advantage, the report states, but it means that more Black people were facing charges for which prosecutors later found there was not enough evidence to support.

“When examined together, results of this study demonstrate a persistent set of disadvantages faced by Black and Hispanic defendants in the criminal justice system,” wrote Stacey Bosick, the study’s author and interim associate vice president of academic programs and dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at Sonoma State University.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann in 2019 commissioned the study, which was funded by the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab located at the University of Denver. McCann on Wednesday pledged to implement the changes suggested by the study and said some changes were already underway.

“This study is being presented to district attorneys’ offices throughout the state as a catalyst for serious discussion, and for the study of equity in the criminal justice system,” McCann wrote in a letter included in the final report.

Bosick’s team analyzed 5,817 felony cases filed between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, and interviewed 20 Denver prosecutors. The study looked at four types of prosecutorial decisions: dismissals, deferred judgments, plea agreements and referrals to drug court.

Bosick made recommendations to address the inequities, including allowing prosecutors more time to review evidence before deciding whether to file a charge. She also recommended additional training and discussions on topics like implicit bias, cultural differences and defendants’ unequal access to resources.

“These trainings could support prosecutors in considering how their interpretations of risk and worthy mitigation may be influenced by their own biases and by the White, middle- and upper-class norms and values that have been prioritized in the criminal justice system,” Bosick wrote.

All 20 prosecutors interviewed agreed that there was systemic racism in the criminal legal system but said they felt they had little power to change it on a case-by-case basis.

“Interviewees felt that they were bound to consider only the circumstances of the cases as they were presented to them; a couple noted that it would be unfair to adjust the outcome of a case to benefit defendants of color,” the report states. “They could not work to offset the racial inequities despite their acceptance that these inequities may have led to a disproportionate number of cases against defendants of color within their caseload.”

Bosick recommended further data collection and analysis, including looking at misdemeanor and juvenile cases.

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