DENVER — A project that tracks racial and ethnic disparities in Colorado district attorney's offices has found significant differences in the way certain groups are prosecuted in the state.
The Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards Project launched in September to provide more just and transparent prosecutions. Initially, eight District Attorney's Offices that cover the metro Denver area took part, and researchers looked at tens of thousands of cases between 2017 and 2022.
"More Black and Hispanic individuals than we would expect came into the justice system -- were arrested and came into the justice system," said Dr. Lauren Gase, who heads the project.
A 9NEWS review of the data found that in every judicial district, there is a disparity in the representation of people being arrested by police and referred to the district attorneys for prosecution. For example, in the judicial district that covers Jefferson and Gilpin counties, 8.5% of the population identifies as Hispanic, but 22.2% of cases have Hispanic defendants. Nine percent of Denver’s population is Black, but 24.6% of cases referred to the DA have a Black defendant.
The project recently added five more DA's offices and now includes more than half of the state's judicial districts, representing 75% of Colorado's population. Colorado is the first state in the nation to move toward this type of data-driven prosecution effort, Gase said.
She said there are three headlines from the project's latest reports:
- A disproportionate number of cases involving Black defendants were dismissed or had their charges reduced.
- A disproportionate number of cases involving Hispanic defendants resulted in guilty pleas.
- In some jurisdictions, a disproportionate number of cases involving Hispanic or Native American people were sentenced to incarceration.
A 9NEWS review of the data found Hispanic defendants were up to 6.5% more likely than Black defendants to get a plea deal and 5.3% more likely than white defendants.
"I think, in general, our findings are in alignment with other work that's been done," Gase said.
She added that although the conclusions are clear, the reasons behind the racial inequalities are not.
"Any difference we see between Black and Hispanic and white individuals could be due to a variety of different factors, such as differences in individual characteristics or differences in case characteristics," Gase said.
Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the project is already paying dividends. Based on some of the project's findings, Dougherty said his office recently made adjustments to its adult diversion program.
"This goes directly to our mission of community safety," he said. "We're doing this for all the right reasons, but we're also doing it to build more trust and equity in the justice system. And if we're able to build more trust and increase community confidence in what we're doing here in the justice system, we'll have greater cooperation with law enforcement and prosecutors in handling our cases."
A deeper dive on dismissals
District attorneys decide what cases move forward and which ones don’t, called dismissal. Cases with Black defendants had a higher probability of being dismissed than white and Hispanic defendants in the six judicial districts with available data.
In the 18th Judicial District, cases with Black defendants had a 24.9% chance of being dismissed, compared to 19.1% of cases with white defendants and 18.3% of cases with Hispanic defendants.
However, white defendants had a higher chance of getting their cases dismissed in all eight judicial districts that disclosed data. The biggest difference was in the 8th Judicial District. In the 8th, cases with white defendants had a 14.6% likelihood of being dismissed, compared to 11.8% of cases with Hispanic defendants.
Some defendants have a higher chance of a less serious charge
District attorneys have discretion to reduce the severity of charges from felony to misdemeanor and within the felony and misdemeanor categories.
A 9NEWS review of the analysis found white defendants had a higher probability of having the severity of their charges reduced compared to Hispanic defendants in seven of the eight judicial districts that provided data. The difference was usually a few percentage points, and at most a difference of 2.8% within the 18th Judicial District.
Black defendants were more likely to get their charges reduced compared to their white counterparts in the six judicial districts that provided data. The largest disparity was in Denver, where white defendants had a chance of a reduced charge in 59.4% of cases. Black defendants had a 62.7% probability of a charge reduction.
The District Attorney's Offices participating in the project are:
- 1st Judicial District (Jefferson and Gilpin counties)
- 2nd Judicial District (Denver)
- 3rd Judicial District (Huerfano and Las Animas counties)
- 5th Judicial District (Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties)
- 6th Judicial District (La Plata, San Juan and Archuleta counties)
- 7th Judicial District (Montrose, San Miguel, Ouray, Delta, Hinsdale and Gunnison counties)
- 8th Judicial District (Jackson and Larimer counties)
- 10th Judicial District (Pueblo County)
- 12th Judicial District (Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande, Saguache counties)
- 17th Judicial District (Adams and Broomfield counties)
- 18th Judicial District (Douglas, Arapahoe, Elbert and Lincoln counties)
- 20th Judicial District (Boulder County)
- 21st Judicial District (Mesa County)
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