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Study commissioned by Denver DA finds no 'pervasive' issues of race or bias

The report also found no racial or ethnic disparities when it came to general plea bargaining, but it did find specific instances where differences were present.

DENVER — The results of a study commissioned by the Denver District Attorney's Office found that it does not have any pervasive issues of race or bias, but did identify some disparities.

The study, conducted by the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver, focused on file data for adult felony cases accepted for prosecution between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.

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The results, which were released Wednesday, also found no racial or ethnic disparities in general plea bargaining.

However, the study did find specific instances where differences were present:

  • Cases involving Black defendants were more likely to be dismissed during prosecution than cases with white defendants. Hispanic defendants were equally as likely to get their case dismissed as white defenders.
  • Cases involving white defendants were twice as likely to get deferred compared to cases involving Black or Hispanic defendants, among cases not dismissed.
  • Felony drug cases involving white defendants were twice as likely to be handled in a drug court, instead of in a district court or some other unit, compared to cases involving Black and Hispanic defendants.

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Denver prosecutors were also interviewed for additional insight, and overall shared a common concern about the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and blamed the system itself for contribution to disparities, according to the study.

Researchers found the following when asking prosecutors to consider the influence of prosecution on disparities: 

  • Prosecutors felt they are unable to correct for social inequalities that could be underlying causes by the point they encounter individuals.
  • Prosecutors did not agree about their role in correcting disparities caused by policing.
  • Prosecutors described using "tangible and subjective" factors in making plea offers, and acknowledged that some may be influenced by race and ethnicity.

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The district attorney's office said it will further evaluate recommendations on case refusals and dismissals, eligibility requirements to support equitable outcomes, increasing processes to support cultural awareness and racial justice, and improving ongoing data collection.

“I am pleased, but not surprised, that the report did not find racial or ethnic disparities in our overall plea bargaining and resolution of cases," Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said. "The report makes recommendations that I am committed to pursue and some of which were already underway prior to the report’s release. I look forward to further review of the areas noted.”

“Driving equitable outcomes for Coloradans involved in the criminal justice system begins with understanding where we are now and what are the opportunities to improve,” said Dr. Elysia Clemens, deputy director and COO of Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab. “It is an honor to support the Denver DA’s Office and researcher Dr. Stacey Bosick in their work to dig into the case data, learn from prosecutors’ experiences, and generate strategies that can be used to advance equity in Denver - and hopefully other jurisdictions as well.”

> The full report can be found on the district attorney's website.

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