Sixty-six percent of states that elect prosecutors have no blacks in those offices, a new study has found, highlighting the lack of diversity in the ranks of those entrusted to bring criminal charges and negotiate prison sentences.
About 95 percent of the 2,437 elected state and local prosecutors across the country in 2014 were white, and 79 percent were white men, according to the study, which was to be released on Tuesday by the San-Francisco-based Women Donors Network. By comparison, white men make up 31 percent of the population of the United States.
The numbers are being released as debate continues about racial imbalances in the criminal justice system in the wake of police-related deaths in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; and Baltimore.
While the racial makeup of police forces across the country has been carefully documented, the diversity of prosecutors, who many law enforcement experts say exercise more influence over the legal system, has received little scrutiny. Prosecutors decide in most criminal cases whether to bring charges. And, because so many criminal cases end in plea bargains, they have a direct hand in
“What this shows us is that, in the context of a growing crisis that we all recognize in criminal justice in this country, we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group,” said Brenda Choresi Carter of the Women Donors Network, who led the study.
The data was compiled and analyzed by the Center for Technology and Civic Life, a nonpartisan group that specializes in aggregating civic data sets. The Women Donors Network, which undertook the project, is composed of about 200 female philanthropists who promote a variety of causes, including diversification of elected officials by race, class and sex.
Researchers looked at all elected city, county and judicial district prosecutors, as well as state attorneys general, in office across the country during the summer of 2014. Kentucky had the most elected prosecutors, 161, and three states — Alaska, Hawaii and New Hampshire — had none.
The study found that 15 states had exclusively white elected prosecutors: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. In Kentucky and Missouri, which also has more than 100 elected prosecutors, all but one was white, according to the analysis.
The study also found that 16 percent of elected prosecutors were white women, 4 percent were minority men and 1 percent were minority women.
“I think most people know that we’ve had a significant problem with lack of diversity in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system for a long time,” said Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that offers legal representation for poor defendants and prisoners. “I think what these numbers dramatize is that the reality is much worse than most people imagine and that we are making almost no progress.”
Mr. Stevenson said that while African-Americans had increased in number in mayoral positions and police forces in recent decades, the numbers suggested that the prosecutorial field had not kept pace.
Melba V. Pearson, a Miami lawyer and the president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, said a “long stain” caused by the imbalance was responsible for mistrust in the system by African-Americans and other minorities.
“They have to see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When you walk into a courtroom and no one looks like you, do you think you are going to get a fair shake?”
Ms. Pearson said she tried to show African-American lawyers that they needed to be represented in all roles in the criminal justice system, including as prosecutors, a role traditionally stigmatized in the black community, to ensure fair outcomes.
Mr. Stevenson questions whether it is possible to diversify the ranks of prosecutors, given that most of them are elected and incumbents often serve long tenures. With 85 percent of incumbent prosecutors re-elected without opposition, according to a study, sitting prosecutors will either need to start making diversity a priority in vetting their successors or the system will need to be significantly altered to give state bar associations and other legal entities more of a say, he said.
The new study did not look at federal prosecutors, who are appointed, or other state or local appointees. The Women Donors Network planned to make a database of all elected prosecutors available on its website later on Tuesday.