Researchers unveil first of four reports on racial disparities in prosecutor behavior

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MacArthur Foundation-funded project analyzed two years of data for black, white and Hispanic defendants in Hillsborough County, Florida
MacArthur Foundation-funded project analyzed two years of data for black, white and Hispanic defendants in Hillsborough County, Florida

To promote fairness and transparency in the criminal justice system, researchers at FIU and Loyola University Chicago have partnered with prosecutors in Tampa, Chicago, Jacksonville and Milwaukee to take a fresh look at prosecutorial performance and decision-making.

Funded by a $1.7 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—the largest MacArthur grant ever awarded to FIU—the project aims to identify racial and ethnic disparities at various stages of a criminal case, from arrest and charges being filed to plea agreements, conviction and sentencing.

Researchers from FIU’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice assessed nearly 87,000 cases from 2017 and 2018 to compare outcomes for black, white and Hispanic defendants in Hillsborough County, Florida. Although there were differences between racial groups, the disparities were not glaring, researchers found.

“Among multiple prosecutorial and judicial decision points analyzed, racial and ethnic disparities are not large,” said FIU criminal justice professor Besiki Kutateladze, who along with Loyola professor Don Stemen, FIU associate professor Ryan Meldrum and post-doctoral research associate Rebecca Richardson, led the project, housed within the Center for the Administration of Justice at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.

“Whenever differences among white, black and Hispanic defendants in prosecutorial and judicial decisions exist, whites are more disadvantaged for some decision points and offense categories, and blacks and Hispanics are more disadvantaged for others,” Kutateladze explained.

“For example, whites were most likely to receive prison sentences for felony property offenses. Blacks were least likely to receive diversion [a process in which the offender avoids a criminal conviction by entering some type of rehabilitation program] for felony drug offenses. And Hispanics were most likely to receive charge increases before case disposition [final outcome] for misdemeanor drug offenses. Because the findings vary by decision points and offense categories, we cannot make one sweeping statement that one group is consistently treated better or worse.”

State Attorney Andrew Warren of the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa said he sees the report as the first step of a broader effort to work toward fairness, effectiveness and transparency.

“The report is a starting point – for understanding trends in our decision making over time, for our commitment to data-driven policy, and for meaningful dialogue with the communities we serve,” he said.

“Moreover, the report does not address the entire criminal justice system. We know disparities exist outside of the prosecutorial field. We need to study the findings in this report and work with our law enforcement partners, other government agencies, and the diverse communities we serve to advance fairness and impartiality for all of Hillsborough County.”

Kutateladze agreed and said he hopes prosecutors like Warren will continue working with local community groups, government partners and researchers to translate the findings into practice.

“We have more than 2,300 local prosecutorial offices in this country and only a handful of them have carried out an independent and transparent examination of their decisions with respect to racial and ethnic disparities,” he said.

“We should applaud prosecutors who commit to improving their work and ensuring equitable and just outcomes for all defendants. We should also acknowledge the significant time, resources and talent that is required to implement a thorough assessment of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

The racial disparities report is the second in a series of publications to come from the MacArthur Foundation project. For the first report, issued in December 2018, researchers interviewed 78 prosecutors and surveyed 275 others online about their priorities, what constitutes success and what they believe are the causes of racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

Among the findings: While racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system are a widely acknowledged fact among prosecuting attorneys, most prosecutors do not think they contribute to these disparities. Nor do they believe there is much they can do to alleviate the problem.

Many pointed to a concentration of crime and violence in communities of color as the reason for a disproportionate number of people of color being incarcerated. Very few prosecutors said their decisions may contribute to such disparities.

Through its Safety and Justice Challenge, the MacArthur Foundation has invested more than $100 million in criminal justice reform and research to reduce over-incarceration in the United Staes, with a particular focus on the disproportionate impact the issue has on low-income and minority individuals.

To view the report on racial disparities in Hillsborough County, click here. Reports on racial disparities in Jacksonville, Chicago and Milwaukee will be released over the next few months.


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