New demographic data released Thursday shows that while prosecutors, the most powerful players in the U.S. justice system, remain overwhelmingly white — and male —competitive elections are gradually adding more diversity to their ranks.
“Competitive elections for prosecutor can fix the demographic crisis and level the playing field for system reform,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which released the study.
According to Carter, the data shows that when voters are given a choice, prosecutors’ ranks begin to look “a lot less like the typical old boys’ club.”
She conceded that challenges to incumbent prosecutors are rare — 80 percent run unopposed — “but when there is competition, change happens.”
The data published by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which follows a 2015 study on elected prosecutors, looked at 2,442 elected prosecutors nationwide as of the summer of 2019, along with voter files and other publicly accessible data.
It concluded that “white control of elected prosecutor positions has not changed.”
The report, “Tipping The Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys’ Club of Elected Prosecutors,” cited Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson description of the prosecutor as an official who “…has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”
This power comes with the responsibility to decide if the defendant is charged or released after arrest. And, since over 90 percent of criminal cases don’t go to trial, it’s mainly prosecutors, not judges, who determine the fate of defendants.
With a large majority of criminal cases wrapping up without a trial by peers, it’s important to understand the race and gender of elected prosecutors because their views and biases shape our criminal justice system across the country, the study authors said.
Moreover, without representation, minority groups feel as though their voices and perspectives are not being considered in justice settings.
The original 2015 study found that 80 percent of elected prosecutors were white men, with 95 percent of the total number of prosecutors from all 50 states being white as well.
Since 2015, however, the wave of so-called ‘progressive’ prosecutors has begun to challenge the demographic picture.
“When women of all races and men of color compete for prosecutor seats, they win at higher rates than white men,” Carter said.
The research found that the past four years have seen “a significant drop in male prosecutors and a concurrent rise in women.”
Women’s prosecutorial presence has gone from 18 percent in 2015 to 24 percent. California is the only state close to gender parity, with 44 percent of its prosecutors being women.
“Despite their near exclusion from prosecutor seats, women of color” have been making strides, “with nearly 50 percent more women of color prosecutors today as in 2015.” the research found.
Unfortunately, this increase was diminished by the drop in men of color, from 4 to 3 percent over the last four years.
“This research shows clearly that those who are most vulnerable to prosecutorial bias and misconduct are also the most under-represented in prosecutors’ offices,” said Premal Dharia, a former public defender and Reflective Democracy Campaign Criminal Justice Fellow.
“We cannot expect the policy changes we need to address race and gender bias in the criminal system to come from those who guard the white male status quo,” Dharia said. “Change will come from those whose lived experience challenges that status quo.”
The Reflective Democracy Campaign’s public opinion research has “consistently found bipartisan voter support for politicians who reflect the full diversity of the American people.”
The data is clear, and the study concludes by saying, “When voters have a choice, they reject the white male status quo.”
Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.