A number of district attorneys’ offices across Colorado, including Boulder’s, have released data revealing racial and ethnic inequality in their prosecution processes.
The eight participating district attorneys’ (DA) offices initially developed the public-facing data dashboard in September of 2022.
The new reports, released on Feb. 15, delve into “key points of discretion” and interpretation of the data.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty says gathering this data and using it to improve the justice system is his office’s top priority.
“This is exactly what we should be doing — pulling the curtain back on the justice system and addressing issues that exist,” he says.
The reports address disproportionality — when people of a certain race/ethnicity are arrested more than expected compared to population — and disparity, which exists when people who should be treated the same are treated differently.
Data analyzed between March 2020 and June 2022 from the Boulder DA’s office found Black defendants receive deferred judgements at a lower rate and have an increased dismissal rate, and Hispanic defendants show lower rates of charge reductions in plea bargaining and have a higher rate of incarceration.
Christian Gardner-Wood, chief deputy district attorney at the Boulder County DA’s Office, says there’s nuance in the data that raises questions.
“Now that we’ve seen this data, it’s going to drive questions from the community, from within our office, from law enforcement, and we want to be able to answer those questions,” he says.
Colorado is the first state in the country to have multiple prosecutors’ offices collaborating to provide this level of crime data, according to the Colorado Evaluation & Action Lab. One reason behind this is that the Centennial State is the only state where all DAs’ offices share the same case management system — enabling collection of statewide data and trends in addition to local data.
The Colorado Evaluation & Action Lab and the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators helped develop the dashboards as part of the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards project. Another five judicial districts will join the project by 2024, increasing the total to 13 — representing more than half of the counties and 75% of the state’s population.
The Boulder DA’s takeaways reflect statewide trends.
Gardner-Wood says Boulder’s office does diversity, equity and inclusion and implicit bias training, but that “we need to go further than that” and address systemic issues in the justice system.
“We need to think about the system drivers of disparity and how do we tackle that,” he says.
For example, Gardner-Wood says prosecutors typically take into account whether a defendant is in school, and how a ruling will impact their ability to move forward professionally. But he acknowledges that college students have resources and historical advantages others might not have.
“Trying to balance that to make sure even though we would say [being a college student] is an appropriate factor to consider in our discretion, we also recognize that may be driving disparities,” he says.
Moving forward, the DA’s office will use this data to inform expanding its diversion programs, screening cases coming into the office and collaboration with other criminal justice partners.
“I would love to see every jurisdiction in the country doing this work,” Dougherty says. “It’s exactly what we need to do to build more trust in the justice system and to ensure the right results.”