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July 7, 2015

New research highlights racial and gender skew in elected prosecutorial ranks

Infographic-1As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "A Study Documents the Paucity of Black Elected Prosecutors: Zero in Most States," new research spotlights that the persons most responsible for the administration of state criminal justice systems are likely the least diverse actors in the system.  Here are the basics:

Sixty-­six percent of states that elect prosecutors have no blacks in those offices, a new study has found, highlighting the lack of diversity in the ranks of those entrusted to bring criminal charges and negotiate prison sentences.

About 95 percent of the 2,437 elected state and local prosecutors across the country in 2014 were white, and 79 percent were white men, according to the study, which was to be released on Tuesday by the San­Francisco­based Women Donors Network.  By comparison, white men make up 31 percent of the population of the United States....

While the racial makeup of police forces across the country has been carefully documented, the diversity of prosecutors, who many law enforcement experts say exercise more influence over the legal system, has received little scrutiny.  Prosecutors decide in most criminal cases whether to bring charges. And, because so many criminal cases end in plea bargains, they have a direct hand in deciding how long defendants spend behind bars.

“What this shows us is that, in the context of a growing crisis that we all recognize in criminal justice in this country, we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group,” said Brenda Choresi Carter of the Women Donors Network, who led the study.

The data was compiled and analyzed by the Center for Technology and Civic Life, a nonpartisan group that specializes in aggregating civic data sets.  The Women Donors Network, which undertook the project, is composed of about 200 female philanthropists who promote a variety of causes, including diversification of elected officials by race, class and sex.

Researchers looked at all elected city, county and judicial district prosecutors, as well as state attorneys general, in office across the country during the summer of 2014. Kentucky had the most elected prosecutors, 161, and three states — Alaska, Hawaii and New Hampshire — had none.

The study found that 15 states had exclusively white elected prosecutors: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.  In Kentucky and Missouri, which also has more than 100 elected prosecutors, all but one was white, according to the analysis.  The study also found that 16 percent of elected prosecutors were white women, 4 percent were minority men and 1 percent were minority women.

“I think most people know that we’ve had a significant problem with lack of diversity in decision­making roles in the criminal justice system for a long time,” said Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that offers legal representation for poor defendants and prisoners. “I think what these numbers dramatize is that the reality is much worse than most people imagine and that we are making almost no progress.”...

Mr. Stevenson questions whether it is possible to diversify the ranks of prosecutors, given that most of them are elected and incumbents often serve long tenures.  With 85 percent of incumbent prosecutors re­elected without opposition, according to a study, sitting prosecutors will either need to start making diversity a priority in vetting their successors or the system will need to be significantly altered to give state bar associations and other legal entities more of a say, he said.

The new study did not look at federal prosecutors, who are appointed, or other state or local appointees.

This website provides colorful representations and related information about the study and data discussed in this New York Times article. This press release retreived via that webpage highlights these data points:

Other key findings of Justice for All*? include:

  • 3/5 of states, including Illinois, have no elected Black prosecutors.
  • In 15 states, all elected prosecutors are white. 
  • Outside of Virginia and Mississippi, only 1% of elected prosecutors are Black.
  • Latinos are 17% of the population, and only 1.7% of elected prosecutors.
  • Only in New Mexico are white men less than 50% of elected prosecutors
  • There is only one state (Maine) where the percentage of women prosecutors matches their percentage of the population (50%)

July 7, 2015 at 10:10 AM | Permalink


Here. Like a breath of fresh air, said the public defender boss. That is a really bad sign.


And the result.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 7, 2015 10:41:37 AM

Dealing with national percentage or even state percentage is flawed. In most states, the chief prosecutor in a county is elected by that county.

Most of the population in most states live in 10% or fewer of those counties. In those 10% of the counties, the population is racially diverse. Some of those counties have minority prosecutors, some have white prosecutors. (Not sure how the numbers in urban counties compare to the racial mix in those counties). The remaining 90% of the counties have very small populations and in many states are not that racially diverse. To use a county in Professor Berman's neck of the woods, out of 14,000 people, Vinton County has maybe 600 people who are a member of some racial or ethnic minority. The odds of Vinton County electing a non-white prosecutor is effectively 0.0%. Yet in determining the total percentage of non-white prosecutors, Vinton counts as much as a large urban county.

The lack of women in the raw numbers is a more significant matter, but, to some extent, the breakdown of prosecutors is self-selected. If women regularly lost to men in races for prosecutors (which would be a different study than these stats), that would be a different story than women just not opting to run.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 7, 2015 11:01:19 AM

"Only in New Mexico are white men less than 50% of elected prosecutors"

Huh? I think this study is confusing race with ethnicity. New Mexico has a large Hispanic population but Hispanics can be of any race. Equally, the claim that 15 states have no black prosecutors is similarly misleading--New Mexico black population is 2%.

The right way to look at the data is to see whether the demographics of the population which elects them mimic the demographics of prosecutors. That is what would be most informative.

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 7, 2015 11:36:02 AM

I wonder if it would be better to look at the demographics of an entire office as opposed to just the elected head? Although I guess the chief prosecutor has an undeniable influence on policy.

Posted by: Erik M | Jul 8, 2015 6:47:48 AM

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