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September 29, 2016

Important review of the politics, power and personage surrounding US prosecutors

Infographic-1This lengthy new Fusion article, headlined "America's Prosecutor Problem: Prosecutors are more powerful than judges -- but the tough-on-crime stance they take to get elected multiplies racial injustices," brings an important empirical perspective to the story of American prosecutors and just who wields arguably the most power in modern criminal justice systems.  Here are excerpts:

Gordon Weekes describes a criminal case that landed on his desk this month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida: “An old lady comes out of her house and sees three or four kids in in her yard.”  She calls the police.  The kids scatter, but get caught. They’d climbed a fence to snag mangos from a tree.  One of the boys is charged with burglary.

“I suppose because he jumped the fence with an intent to take mangos, that it was a burglary,” muses Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in Broward County.  “But the kid is 13 years old -- and he didn’t even take a mango! The state attorney’s office is supposed to decide how to charge these cases. You would think they would go with the more appropriate charge, which is trespass. No -- they’re going with the more serious charge.”....

“Prosecutors have more power in this system than any judge, any supreme court, any police officer, or any attorney,” he says. They decide what charges to file -- “or more importantly, what charges not to file.”

Even as race and justice issues dominate national headlines, few media outlets have focused on the formidable power prosecutors wield. But they should.  Of the 2,437 elected prosecutors in America (at both the both federal and county levels), 79 percent were white men --- even though white men made up only 31 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Women Donors Network.  That disparity, the report said, is a “structural flaw in the justice system” that has cascading effects -- like reducing accountability for police officers who shoot unarmed minorities.

As part of “Rigged,” our investigation into the dark side of modern-day electioneering, Fusion worked with Color of Change, another organization working on social justice issues, to collect and analyze data for every jurisdiction in America.

The results are stark: 93 percent of all prosecutors in the United States are white, though only 61 percent of the U.S. population is.  At the same time, there were 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal prisons, according to the latest (2014) data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which noted that black men “were in state or federal facilities 3.8 to 10.5 times more often than white men.”  Fusion’s data supports what social justice activists have long maintained: At the local level, America’s justice system is disproportionately white-controlled, and disproportionately oriented toward punishing minorities.  There are no straightforward answers for how and why the disparity persists, but the data shows the disparity is real....

In many places in America, people of color represent a small share of the population, so it’s natural to assume that the overwhelming whiteness of US district attorneys is due to the whiteness of large swaths of the country. However, when Fusion analyzed the data, we found the imbalance persists even in communities of color:

  • In counties in the U.S. where people of color represent between 50% and 60% of the population, only 19% of prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
  • In counties where people of color represent between 80% and 90% percent of the population, only 53% of the prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
  • Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community.
  • Overall, in the 276 counties in the U.S. where people of color represent the majority of the population, only 42%, or less than half, of the prosecutors in these counties are prosecutors of color.
  • Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community....

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said that any prosecutor can be good or bad. The problem, he said, is that to get elected, they usually position themselves as “tough on crime” and make strong alliances with police. “They’re going into the job trying to get high conviction rates,” Robinson said. “They try to rack up as many convictions as possible, even though we a have mass incarceration problem.” What we really need, he says, is progressive prosecutors of any race who realize that “the prison-industrial complex has not made us safer.”

Indeed, Color of Change is tracking prosecutor elections and gathering data such as the number of times a prosecutor is elected, what party they represent, their race, gender, and whether they were appointed or ran unopposed. Of the 2,326 prosecutors elected to office as of 2016 and tracked by Color of Change, 72 percent -- 1,691 in all -- ran unopposed in their last election....

Many factors could contribute to the gap in the number of prosecutors of color who run for office. In the data that Color of Change collected, only 94 prosecutors of color were elected to office as of 2016. Of these, 60 ran unopposed in their last election, or 64 percent. Of the 2223 white prosecutors currently elected to office, 1627 or 73 percent ran unopposed. Although the percent of white incumbents who ran unopposed is slightly higher, there is not enough data to draw a conclusion primarily because there are so few prosecutors of color in office. Interestingly, three states (New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska) appoint prosecutors. In these states, 32 percent of the prosecutors are people of color compared to just 4 percent of prosecutors who are elected. Color of Change hopes to track election outcomes over time in order to better understand what might be driving these differences.

After police arrest a person, the prosecutor and his/her staff of assistant attorneys make a host of decisions that can transform the life of the accused:

  • They can recommend whether the defendant should be released on bail, and can recommend a bail amount.
  • They can adjust the charges, making them more or less severe, felonies or misdemeanors.
  • They can decide whether a child is charged as a juvenile or an adult.
  • They can add or subtract counts.
  • They can also convene grand juries to determine which charges to pursue.
  • The prosecutor can also decide not to press charges at all.

“At any time, until a jury is sworn or a plea taken by the court, the state attorney can chose to drop the case,” said Gordon Weekes. “That is always their power, for many reasons: not enough evidence, it’s not in the interest of the public to go forward, there’s an alternative that better suited.”

Because laws outline recommended prison sentences, or even dictate mandatory minimum sentences for particular crimes, a prosecutor can have far more latitude over a defendant’s ultimate prison sentence than a judge, based solely on what charges are brought. For example, at the federal level, someone accused of a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana could be fined $1,000 and spend a year in jail. With felony charge of selling marijuana, the fine could be $250,000 and the sentence, five years in prison. Weekes notes that the stronger the threat of punishment, the more inclined a defendant might be to just plead guilty and end the case rather than incur lawyer fees and take up time as the case goes to trial.

In Broward County, Florida, the site of the mango crime, the state attorney is Michael Satz, who was elected to his role in 1976 and has won every election since. He is now 73 years old. On his website, Satz makes no secret of his mission. He brags that in 1992, he “achieved the highest total conviction rate for trials and guilty pleas in the state, a high standard his office works hard to maintain.”

Satz made his reputation for being tough on crime during the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s -- and, critics, say, that reputation was built the backs of minorities. “He’s sent thousands of people to prison on very, very minor drug offenses,” Weekes said. “There’s probably more drug crime occurring on college campuses, but no one is going to any college and kicking down the dorm room door to find a bong under the bed.

“He’s a very nice guy, but he’s lost in a different age and different time,” Weekes said of Satz. “Because he doesn’t have any true connection to people who are impoverished, who have had to struggle, he can’t relate to a lot of the people entering the criminal justice system. There is a lack of empathy that comes from that office -- and countless examples in the ways they choose to prosecute cases.”

September 29, 2016 at 09:22 AM | Permalink

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