According to the findings, an estimated 95 percent of local and elected state prosecutors in 2014 were white. And the results don’t fare very well for women, either: 79 percent of the prosecutors were male. Furthermore, white women accounted for 16 percent of the total, followed by 4 percent for minority men and a mere 1 percent for minority women. And in 14 states, all of the prosecutors are white. These numbers are disproportionate to the general population, which is only 31 percent white male.
A study by the American Bar Association does not show much improvement when it comes to lawyers: in 2010 88.1% of lawyers were white, and in 2005 70% were male.
The rates at which people are prosecuted for crimes shows how harmful these statistics are. The 2013 census estimated the population is almost 63 percent white and 13.2 percent Black. However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s mid-2014 report shows white inmates making up less than half of the people in jail at just 47 percent. Meanwhile, Blacks accounted for 35 percent more than double the percent of the population they represent overall. Pairing these facts with the study signifies an indisputable bias in the justice system.
According to Donna Hall, President and CEO of the Women Donors Network, “Americans are taking a new look at the relationship between race, gender, and criminal justice Elected prosecutors have an enormous influence on the pursuit of justice in America, yet 79% of them are white men whose life experiences do not reflect those of most Americans.”
The study describes just how much influence prosecutors have, explaining that prosecutors are responsible for deciding “when to bring a case or drop charges, how and whether to prosecute, and what level of charges and sentences to pursue.”
Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said of the findings, “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.”
Bryan A. Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Intitiave (a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to prisoners and poor defendants), believes that while the issue itself does not come as a surprise, the numbers are more dismal than what people may have thought prior to the study: “I think most people know that we’ve had a significant problem with lack of diversity in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system for a long time. 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.”
The press release for the study elaborated on at least part of why this lack of diversity continues:
In many instances, prosecutors face election in “down-ballot” races that take place in off-year elections when voter turnout is at its lowest. The result is that these powerful positions are not subject to a rigorous and democratic system of checks and balances.
In fact, according to a recent study by Ronald Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, 85% of all incumbent prosecutors run unopposed.
According to Carter, inequality in the justice system is inevitable given these unfavorable statistics and most definitely raises questions: “In the context of such skewed numbers, when a white male prosecutor fails to secure an indictment in Ferguson and another sends a woman of color in Indiana to prison for 20 years for feticide, we have to ask serious questions about systemic bias.”