New Guide Helps Prosecutors Address Racially Disparate Criminal Justice Outcomes

NEW YORK – Prosecutors nationwide are paying greater attention to how decisions made in the course of case processing contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in case outcomes. A new guide aims to help them parse out their role in these outcomes.

The Vera Institute of Justice has published A Prosecutor’s Guide for Advancing Racial Equity, a field-informed guide based on nine years of work partnering with prosecutorial jurisdictions around the country to look into the offices’ practices and policies. Vera has found that while other factors—including the seriousness of a charge and a defendant’s prior record—are better predictors of case outcomes, race often remains a factor.

“Prosecutors hold significant power over every step of a criminal case, including charging decisions, pretrial detention, and sentencing recommendations, so ensuring that implicit biases do not affect their decision making is essential to the equal delivery of justice,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner. “Conducting a rigorous self-evaluation can be daunting, but the tools contained in this guide can help prosecutors through a process that strengthens their work and restores the community’s faith in our justice system.”

The guide serves as a checklist for evaluating what a chief prosecutor needs to move forward with the research and evidence-based analysis that is at the heart of the internal review process explained in the guide. Every step is explained, from assessing the office’s capacity to conduct such an evaluation in the first place to engaging an outside research partner, hiring staff, and setting expectations for the research.

Data collected and analyzed in partnership with a research team can help prosecutors:

  • identify institutional factors that may lead to disparate racial outcomes;
  • assess how prosecutors are applying their discretion;
  • implement corrective courses of action if needed; and
  • serve as leaders for racial equity in their jurisdictions.

In addition, the guide includes overviews of PRJ’s work with prosecutors in New York County, NY; Milwaukee County, WI; and Mecklenberg County, NC, including what each office was seeking to learn, the researchers’ assessment of the issues at hand, the findings, and the next steps each office has taken or will take to address their evaluation’s results.

A symposium on racial disparities in the criminal justice system held last November at Harvard Law School is further evidence of the growing interest in this important topic. For more information on the symposium—the first collaboration between Vera and the school’s new Criminal Justice Program of Study, Research, and Advocacy—and to watch video interviews with chief prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and legal scholars, please visit Vera’s website.