Vast majority of elected prosecutors in US are white, report finds

The report comes as the American population diversifies and police departments consider reforms in the wake of a string of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of officers.

Alex Brandon/AP Photo/File
Baltimore state's attorney Marilyn Mosby speaks in Baltimore on May 1, 2015. Ms. Mosby is one of only a few dozen elected female prosecutors of color in the United States.

When Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore, announced charges in May against six police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, much was made about her background.

She comes from five generations of police officers, including her parents and several aunts and uncles. Her 17-year-old cousin was killed in 1994 outside her home after being mistaken for a drug dealer. When she was elected last year, she became the youngest chief prosecutor of any major US city.

Ms. Mosby is also one of maybe a few dozen elected female prosecutors of color in the United States.

As the American population diversifies and police departments consider reforms in the wake of a string of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of officers, a new survey reports that the overwhelming majority of elected prosecutors in the US are white.

The survey, conducted by the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign, studied 2,437 elected prosecutors holding office last summer. Across the country, the report found, 95 percent are white and 79 percent are white men. White men account for 31 percent of the US population, according to the most recent census data.

“Prosecutors play an incredibly powerful but often less visible role in the criminal justice system,” says Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, who spoke during a webinar with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Prosecutors are responsible for crucial decisions at almost every stage of the criminal justice process: from the decision about whether to pursue a criminal case in the first place, to whether a crime should be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, to whether the proposed sentence includes prison time.

“The most critical decisionmaker in the criminal justice system has been the prosecutor, more critical even than the judge,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who also spoke to reporters Tuesday.

“They prioritize which crimes matter most, which people matter most,” Mr. Stevenson adds.

The power of prosecutors is illustrated in the case of Mr. Gray, a young black man who died from injuries sustained in police custody. Mosby’s announcement of charges against the six police officers came after prosecutors in two similar cases –the deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., and New York – did not secure indictments from grand juries.

In a comparison of prosecutorial responses in recent incidents like these, Emma Roller and Priscilla Alvarez wrote in the National Journal that Mosby’s response stood out from others who addressed the local black community “with vague calls to ‘make some changes’ and ‘make their voices heard.’ ”

“Mosby has been the first attorney in a recent case to hear that pain, personalize it, and truly respond to it,” they wrote.

Even though most prosecutors are elected, there isn’t necessarily competition for the job. A recent study by Ronald Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, found that 85 percent of elected prosecutors run unopposed. Mosby ran unopposed after winning the Democratic primary for her position.

Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, says it’s almost unheard-of for a district attorney in Massachusetts to lose when running for reelection.

“I can’t recall any incumbent district attorney in [Massachusetts] being defeated in a run for reelection. It simply doesn’t happen,” he says.

“The vast amount of unchecked power that prosecutors have is something that many people are not particularly aware of,” he adds. “And the fact that power resides in a largely white male cohort is something that came as a bit of surprise to me.”

It’s possible that the prosecutor demographics could turn around quickly if prosecutors themselves make a concerted effort to increase diversity within their ranks, says Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. He points to police departments around the country, which over several decades have generally become more diverse and reflective of their communities.

“Prosecutors pick their successors: They identify people in their community who should succeed them, and obviously they’re not doing anything to diversify that role,” he says.

“You can expect real culture change with a change of leadership,” he adds.

Others say the survey results overstate the racial disparity. According to David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, one third of crimes in the US are prosecuted through 35 offices – mostly in large urban centers like New York and Los Angeles.

“The top 35 [prosecutor offices] do not match this information that is presented at all,” Mr. LaBahn says. “They’re not 79 percent white males.”

He cites places where prosecutors are not white men, including Miami-Dade County (State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle), Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston (District Attorney Devon Anderson), and California (state Attorney General Kamala Harris).

“I would submit that generally when you look around the country, when you look at urban centers,” he adds, “the majority [of prosecutors] overwhelmingly are” reflective of their communities.

Stevenson notes that in terms of the US attorney general – the most senior prosecutor in the country – the previous one, Eric Holder, is a black man, and his successor, Loretta Lynch, is a black woman.

Particular details from the Reflective Democracy Campaign survey stand out. Three fifths of states in the survey (New Hampshire and Hawaii were excluded “due to the limited role of their elected prosecutors”) have no elected black prosecutors, including Illinois. More than half of elected black prosecutors are concentrated in Virginia and Mississippi. In 15 of the states in the survey, all elected prosecutors are white.

Stevenson points to Baltimore as an example of the difference a prosecutor of color can make.

“I think everyone believes that the fact they have a woman of color in the [state’s attorney’s] office and in the mayor’s office [with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake], that that led to an indictment there rather than in Staten Island and in Ferguson, Mo.,” he says.

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