Black and Latino people face harsher outcomes in Denver’s criminal justice system, with some prosecutors expressing concern about questionable police tactics, according to a report released Wednesday from the Denver District Attorney’s Office.
Researchers funded by the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab examined 6,839 adult felony cases that the city accepted for prosecution between July 2017 and June 2018, finding white defendants were more likely to have their drug cases referred to problem-solving court and to receive plea agreements that could ultimately end with the dismissal of their case in exchange for staying out of trouble.
The report’s author, Stacey J. Bosick of Sonoma University, also found Black defendants were 31% more likely, on the other hand, to have their cases dismissed.
Although there was no immediate explanation for that trend, anonymous interviews with 20 prosecutors in Denver suggested the police’s handling of some defendants might play a role in their outcome.
“While prosecutors reported an overall positive relationship with the police, they also described questionable, and sometimes inappropriate, police behavior or weak evidence that undermined the prosecution of a case,” the report noted.
“Interviewees described feeling frustrated when the evidence for a police stop, especially stops for mechanical violations, were not recorded in the officer’s body-worn camera footage.”
District Attorney Beth McCann, first elected in 2016, said she welcomed the report and pointed to areas for improvement within her office.
“I am pleased, but not surprised, that the study found no racial or ethnic disparities in general plea bargaining by our office, let alone any prevalent issues of racism, bias, or implicit bias,” McCann wrote in the foreword to the report.
Among the specific findings, white criminal defendants were twice as likely to receive a deferred judgment as Blacks and Hispanics.
A deferred judgment is a guilty plea that gives the defendant a period of supervision in lieu of harsher criminal penalties.
If the person successfully completes the conditions, the court can dismiss some or all of the charges.
Also twice as likely for whites was the chance of drug charges moving to a specialty drug court — a type of problem-solving court that Colorado has set up to divert people from prison.
Not everyone with a drug offense is eligible for diversion, but if Black and Hispanic residents are more likely to have criminal histories, researchers noted, that could bias the use of drug court against them.
Overall, of the 3,000 cases for which there was not a drug charge as the primary offense, 39% of defendants were white, 27% were black, and one-third were Hispanic. In Denver on the whole, 54% of residents are white, 10% are black and 30% are Hispanic.
Among the 20 prosecutors interviewed, they commonly pointed to the justice system as contributing to racial disparities. At the same time, they described the Denver District Attorney’s Office as “progressive.”
“I obviously hope I don't contribute to systemic racism. I feel like I don't, and I feel that the people I work with — we all think we don't. So, I don't know what's going on in other DA offices and other states because you see stuff on the news. Maybe Colorado's different,” one person told researchers.
In McCann’s office, nearly 8 in 10 prosecutors are white. Hispanic people constitute 9%, and Black people 4%.
The people selected for anonymous interviews roughly mirrored those demographics. Black and Hispanic prosecutors who were interviewed showed concern that their white colleagues would view them as overly sympathetic toward defendants of color.
The attorneys also spoke about problematic police conduct, including what they characterized as a small number of officers bringing “problematic” cases.
The prosecutors tended to rely on police narratives initially, but they might eventually find the body-worn camera footage did not corroborate the charges to a sufficient degree.
“We can force them to change,” one person said. “Start filing charges against cops ... refusing cases from cops who have a history of bad acts or acts of dishonesty. If you watch a guy’s body-worn, it’s like these reports never match up. We have the power to say, you know what, we’re not going to take cases from” the officer.
Another attorney described dismissing a jaywalking case against a Black man, where the encounter with police was “very suspect.” A researcher asked if the lawyer took their concerns to the police officer.
“Ah, no, actually I should do that,” they responded. “That’s actually something I should do. And I will do that. I'm going to add it to my to-do list.”
In other findings, the data showed no difference in the ability of Black, white or Hispanic defendants to receive reduced charges for guilty pleas.
Women were slightly more likely to receive a less serious charge in exchange for a plea agreement than men, and older defendants were more likely to have their cases dismissed.
McCann will hold a news conference Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. to discuss the report along with Elysia Clemens, the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab's deputy director and COO, Robert Davis, executive director of Seasoned With Grace UnBoxed, the Rev. Jose Silva, CEO of the Colorado Association for Infant Mental Health, and Kenneth Boyd, former deputy district attorney in the Denver DA's office and a project lead for the study.
This article has been updated to clarify the funding source for the study.