Prosecutors’ ability to exercise a wide degree of discretion has the potential to contribute to equitable—or inequitable—outcomes for defendants in the United States criminal justice system.
This study analyzed felony cases accepted for prosecution by the Denver District Attorney’s Office to understand the presence and extent of racial and ethnic differences. Administrative data and case file review showed differences between White, Black, and Hispanic defendants across three of the four points of prosecutorial discretion examined: dismissals, deferred judgments, and referrals to drug court.
Interviews with Denver prosecutors provided additional insight. Overall, interviewees shared a common concern about the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system and pointed to the system itself as contributing to racial disparities.
This study represents an important first step in understanding racial and ethnic difference in case outcomes and an effort on the part of the Denver District Attorney’s Office to expand the use of data, improve transparency, and hold themselves accountable for the equitable treatment of defendants. The recommendations to further evaluate case refusals and dismissals, review eligibility requirements to support equitable outcomes, increase processes to support cultural awareness and racial justice, and improve ongoing data collection and review may have application to other judicial districts.
A secondary follow-on project will explore next steps to better understand the context and decision-making processes associated with areas of disparities.
Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice
Denver District Attorney’s Office
University of Colorado Denver
Racial Disparities in Prosecutorial Outcomes
An analysis of felony cases accepted for prosecution by the Denver District Attorney’s Office in the City and County of Denver