In April 2021, the Colorado Lab released a report, Racial Disparities in Prosecutorial Outcomes, examining felony cases accepted for prosecution by the Denver District Attorney’s (DA) Office between July 2017 and June 2018. The study found that race and ethnicity were not associated with general plea offers extended. The study did find differences between White, Black, and Hispanic defendants across the other three points of prosecutorial discretion examined: dismissals, deferred judgments, and referrals to Drug Court.
The purpose of this follow-on project was to dig deeper into two points of prosecutorial discretion—dismissals of filed cases and deferred judgments for defendants—to examine whether the characteristics of defendants or the reasons for the dismissal or deferred judgment differed by defendant race/ethnicity.
Overall, results did not show meaningful differences in the reasons why cases were dismissed or defendants received a deferred judgment by race/ethnicity. However, the relatively small number of Black defendants who received a deferred judgment makes interpretation of any potential racial/ethnic differences for that outcome difficult.
This research-practitioner collaboration has taken a step toward improving prosecutorial transparency and identified opportunities for the Denver DA’s Office, including ongoing effort to:
- Consider the criteria and rationale used to make decisions about dismissals and deferred judgments.
- Support prosecutors with additional trainings and office discussions on issues such as implicit bias and cultural differences.
- Augment its case management system to more systematically collect data that can support ongoing case review, learning, and transparency.
Denver District Attorney’s Office
University of Denver, Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab
Racial Disparities in Prosecutorial Outcomes
A Deeper Dive on Cases That Were Dismissed or Received Deferred Judgment by the Denver District Attorney’s Office in the City and County of Denver
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.
Agencies: Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice; Denver District Attorney’s Office
Research Partner: University of Colorado Denver