A New Study Says 95 Percent of U.S. Prosecutors Are White, as U.S. Maintains Racially Biased Justice System
White people, especially white men, are almost exclusively prosecuting people of color and sending them to prison. The results of a new report are sobering, even shocking to those who monitor race in the criminal justice system.
According to a new report from the Women Donors Network and conducted by the Center for Technology and Civic Life, 95 percent of the 2,437 elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white. Moreover, white men, who comprise only 31 percent of the population, make up 79 percent of prosecutors.
Further, 29 states—60 percent of states— have no Black elected prosecutors, and 15 states have no elected prosecutors of color. Over half of the 61 Black prosecutors in the nation reside in two states—Mississippi and Virginia.
Moreover, only 17 percent of prosecutors are women, and a mere 1 percent of elected prosecutors are women of color, while 4 percent are minority men. Latinos are less than 2 percent of elected prosecutors.
“I did not expect the numbers to be encouraging, but I did not expect them to be this stark, even knowing 90 percent of elected officials are white,” said Brenda Choresi Carter of the Women Donors Network, according to The Huffington Post. Choresi noted that the study shows how incredible power and discretion are in the hands of one demographic group. “If we saw these kinds of numbers in another country, we’d recognize that something was very seriously wrong.”
The study looked at state and local elected prosecutors, and did not assess federal prosecutors, who are appointed.
The Guardian reported that a 2012 University of Michigan study found that prosecutorial discretion in federal cases resulted in Black defendants facing “significantly more severe charges than whites.” As Jeffrey Toobin noted in The New Yorker, a study found that prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to try 41 percent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with 27 percent of Blacks. Meanwhile, Blacks were more likely to be charged for resisting arrest than whites, and Black prostitutes were more likely to be charged than white prostitutes.
In a system that is afflicted with systemic discrimination, increasing the number of prosecutors of color is not the only solution. “But given that whites tend to be far blinder to the reality of gaps in the system than blacks do, it seems particularly important that prosecutors become a more diverse bunch,” David A. Graham points out in The Atlantic.
While much attention has been paid to the lack of diversity of police departments, this most recent study suggests the racial and gender makeup of elected prosecutors demands more attention. “Over the last 25 years, the most critical decision maker in the criminal justice system has become the prosecutor,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
The refusal of white male prosecutors to indict white police officers in the killing of Black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. has placed racism in the criminal justice system on the front burner.
Meanwhile, prosecutors of color have played a crucial role in helping to equalize a racially imbalanced system. Prominent examples include Marilyn Mosby, the State’s Attorney in Baltimore who prosecuted six police officers in the April 12, 2015 death of Freddie Gray and Kamala Harris, the first African-American (and Asian-American) attorney general of California, who is openly opposed to the death penalty. Craig Watkins, the first Black district attorney in Dallas—whose great-grandfather was executed in 1932 after a jury deliberated for only 40 minutes—has become a champion for the wrongfully convicted by freeing innocent people from prison.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the election of prosecutors, and the evidence suggests the system is not serving the country well in terms of diversity and accountability, particularly given the broad discretion afforded prosecutors.
“In the United States, we typically hold prosecutors accountable for their discretionary choices by asking the lead prosecutor to stand for election from time to time. This is not true in most places around the globe. In the various civil law systems in other countries, the idea of electing prosecutors is jarring,” wrote Ronald F. Wright, professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law.
Wright noted that while prosecutors, as licensed attorneys, must answer to the state bar authorities, that control is not secure. Yet, under the electoral process for prosecutors, 85 percent of incumbents are reelected without challengers. According to Wright, “the reality of prosecutor elections is not so encouraging. A national sample of outcomes in prosecutor elections—described here for the first time— reveals that incumbents do not lose often. The principal reason is that challengers do not come forward very often, far less often than challengers in state legislative elections.” Wright added, “Uncontested elections short-circuit the opportunities for voters to learn about the incumbent’s performance in office and to make an informed judgment about the quality of criminal enforcement in their district.”
According to the American Bar Association, 90 percent of the American legal profession is white. And yet, people of color are 61 percent of the incarcerated population, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. A criminal justice system in which white prosecutors place people of color in prison lacks integrity and credibility.