A new study has found that about 95 percent of the 2437 elected state and local prosecutors in the United States in 2014 were white.
Even though white men make up 31 percent of the population nationwide, the study released Tuesday found that 79 percent of elected prosecutors are white men. Sixty-six percent of states that elect prosecutors have no African Americans in those offices.
Prosecutors exercise vast influence in our criminal justice system: they decide whether to bring charges in most criminal cases, and because so many cases are resolved by plea bargain, they also determine what sentences defendants receive. The data shows that “we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group,” said Brenda Choresi Carter of the Womens Donor Network, who led the study.
Researchers examined all elected city, county, and judicial district prosecutors, as well as state attorneys general, in office across the country during the summer of 2014. It found that fifteen states had exclusively white elected prosecutors. Nationwide, 16 percent were white women, 4 percent were minority men, and 1 percent were minority women.
EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said the number of African American prosecutors has not increased alongside the growing number of black mayors and police. “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,” he told the New York Times. “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.”
Eighty-five percent of incumbent prosecutors are re-elected without opposition, and they tend to serve long tenures. In order to diversify the ranks of prosecutors, Mr. Stevenson said, sitting prosecutors will need to start making diversity a priority in vetting their successors or the system will need to be significantly altered to give state bar associations and other legal entities more of a say.
Melba V. Pearson, president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, said that African Americans need to be represented in prosecutorial roles to ensure fair outcomes. She said the absence of black prosecutors contributes to mistrust in the criminal justice system by African Americans and other minorities: “When you walk into a courtroom and no one looks like you, do you think you are going to get a fair shake?”