Boulder County DA case study examines disparity in Black and Hispanic outcomes

Feb. 18—An analysis of Boulder District Attorney’s Office cases between 2020 and 2022 found “positive trends of low disparity” but still uncovered ways in which Black and Hispanic people saw higher rates of incarceration and harsher plea agreements.

The study, released Wednesday, used data compiled through an online dashboard that the Boulder County DA’s Office partnered with Prosecutor Performance Indicators to debut last year.

The study examined felonies and misdemeanors filed between March 2020 and July 2022 for individuals identified as white, black or Hispanic.

The DA’s Office concluded that the data “shows positive trends of low disparity. While disproportionality exists in terms of who is referred to the DA’s Office, once cases hit our office, they are largely treated similarly.”

But the study did find areas of concern: Black defendants receive deferred judgments at a lower rate and have an increased dismissal rate, while Hispanic defendants show lower rates of charge reductions in plea bargaining.

The data showed 20.3% of cases involving Black defendants, 16.8% of cases involving white defendants, and 16.7% of cases involving Hispanic defendants were dismissed.

Meanwhile, only 11.7% of cases involving Black defendants resulted in a deferred judgment, compared to 14% for white and Hispanic defendants.

In a deferred judgment, a defendant is given the opportunity to later withdraw their guilty plea and have the charge dismissed if they are able to complete the terms of their sentence and avoid new criminal charges.

The study also found 48.6% of Black defendants and 42.8% of white defendants received plea deals in which their charges were dropped from felonies to misdemeanors or misdemeanors to petty offenses, but only 38.7% of Hispanic defendants had such plea deals.

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Both Black and Hispanic defendants also have a higher rate of incarceration, with 21.9% of cases involving Black defendants and 21.6% of cases involving Hispanic defendants resulting in jail, community corrections or prison compared to 17.8% of white defendants.

The DA’s Office also noted there remained issues at the arrest stage that needed to be addressed.

When considering race and ethnicity together, data suggests that 8.5% of individuals in Boulder County identify primarily as Hispanic, but they represent 20.5% of individuals referred to the DA’s Office.

Meanwhile, Black individuals make up 1% of the Boulder County population but 5% of the cases referred to the DA’s Office.

“To support actionability, it is important to dig deeper, distinguishing between two important concepts — disproportionality and disparity — and considering system drivers of potential differences,” the study read.

“Any decisions made by the DA’s Office are ‘downstream’ from the first decision in criminal case processing: who is arrested. Where there are racial disproportionalities in the raw number of people arrested, it follows that those disproportionate numbers flow throughout the prosecution process. “

The study added that, “Disproportionality may not necessarily be explained by differences in criminal behavior. It can also be due to the behavior of criminal justice actors, like law enforcement practices and resource allocation that result in more people of color being stopped and arrested, or crime trends and enforcement responses in certain neighborhoods.”

The dashboard is one of the steps the office took in the wake of a Vera Institute study that found that Black and Hispanic people were more likely to be charged, convicted and incarcerated than white people in Boulder County and that people experiencing homelessness made up a disproportionate amount of cases.

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“Our office is committed to this important and transformative work,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in a statement. “I am especially grateful to (Chief Deputy District Attorney) Christian Gardner-Wood, (Director of Diversion and Restorative Justice) Elaina Shively, and all our staff for their hard work in moving this effort forward.

“Colorado is moving to become the first state to embrace data dashboards for all the District Attorney’s Offices. Together, we are working hard to build a more transparent and equitable justice system for victims and defendants. The data continues to inform the concrete action steps already underway with the expansion of our diversion programs, screening of cases coming into the office, and our ongoing collaboration with other criminal justice partners. Colorado is at the forefront of this important work.”

The Boulder County office was one of eight across the state to partner on the project, with five more having signed on since the initial launch.

A release from the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards project indicated data from all of those jurisdictions reflected the issues found in Boulder County.

“Colorado is the first state in the country to have multiple prosecutors’ offices working together to provide this type of in-depth data,” the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards project wrote in a statement.

“This bipartisan effort helps offices identify and prioritize actions that can be taken at points of prosecutorial discretion to make sure defendants and victims are treated fairly.”

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