Project Aimed at Eliminating Prosecutor Race Bias Shows Promising Results

Milwaukee County’s district attorney said at a briefing Monday that under a project that has his staff looking for race bias while screening cases, he has fewer defendants going to prison without an impact on public safety.

The briefing discussed the Vera Institute’s Prosecution and Racial Justice Program. Prosecutors in Milwaukee County, San Diego County and Mecklenburg County, N.C., are participating in the ongoing program, which was launched in 2005.

An analysis of cases in Milwaukee showed that junior prosecutors were filing drug paraphernalia charges against 73 percent of nonwhites versus 59 percent of whites, the Crime Report said. But within a few months the office changing its practice to stress diversion to treatment rather than filing charges in many cases, the racial disparity in filing charges had disappeared.

“The last time we checked, they only prosecuted 10 of those cases, period, and there was no disparity,” Wayne McKenzie, director of the program, told the ABA Journal. “Not only did the process get rid of the disparities, but the process of looking at those cases and seeing there was a more appropriate way to handle them regardless of race. There’s a double story to that.”

Chisholm said in a 2008 article in the Vera Institute’s Just Cause (PDF) newsletter that his staff saw in 2006 data from the program that there was a racial disparity in their office’s drug paraphernalia prosecutions: Minorities were charged more often. At the time, his staff concluded the disparity came from prosecutors’ inexperience.

“African-Americans are being charged more than white people on this because out in the suburbs they’re handing out tickets, whereas downtown the person they’re encountering might already have two or three drug convictions on their record. So the inexperienced prosecutor sees three or four drug convictions and, even though it’s a minor offense, says, ‘I’ve got to be tough on this person.’ Whereas, a more senior prosecutor would say, ‘Get treatment and we’ll dismiss the case.’ “

Charlotte, N.C., prosecutors also saw a reduced racial disparity in cases when prosecutors there made a practice of declining more cases at the outset rather than dropping cases that had been pending, Crime Report says.

Related content:

Prosecution and Racial Justice: Using Data to Advance Fairness in Criminal Prosecution (PDF) (March 2009)

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