A months-long study of racial disparities in local prosecutions found race produced “minimal” disparities among Black, White and Hispanic suspects.
The study, a partnership between the local State Attorney’s Office, Florida International University and Loyola University, analyzed data from more than 88,000 criminal cases handled by 4th District prosecutors over the past two years.
It examined whether race played a role at five touchpoints in the prosecutorial process: case filing, charge changes from arrest to filing, disposition type, charge changes from filing to disposition and sentencing.
Lead researcher Besiki Kutateladze noted the research is complex and not easily summarized but said, “Generally race is not the most significant factor in any of the decisions.”
In each of the five touchpoints examined, researchers accounted for 18 factors in order to create the purest comparison possible. Those factors included the age of the defendant and victim, the severity and number of charges and prior convictions.
One area examined -- the likelihood of a case being filed at all – found charges were filed in 795 out of 1,000 cases involving White defendants, 772 involving Black defendants and 824 involving Hispanic defendants.
No charges were filed in 154 of 1,000 cases involving White defendants, 187 involving Black defendants and 134 involving Hispanic defendants.
Kutateladze said the goal of the study is improving prosecutorial performance in the context of a criminal justice system where racial bias is understood to exist.
He said, “We know African Americans are only 13 percent of the general population, but they are 38 percent of people in prisons. Racial disparities in jails are not any better. African Americans are three times more likely to be in jail. That is a very difficult finding to swallow, but it is also very difficult to come up with a policy to address them. So what we are trying to do is break them down by decision points, see, and how similarly situated defendants are treated by the system.”
The study is unusual. Of 2,300 local prosecutors’ offices nationally, Kutateladze says fewer than 10 are collecting data. But he says “particularly in this jurisdiction, the appetite for data is growing.”
State Attorney Melissa Nelson said she thinks data tracking is necessary.
“While this is unusual for government or DA’s offices, obviously, in every industry in the private sector, data is used to study and inform decision making from A-Z," she said. "If we are seeking as an office to be more effective at our job and peruse public safety more effusively and be smarter with the resources that we have no choice but to rely on data to inform our policy creation and change.
One area where race played a role is case dismissals. Prosecutors were more likely to dismiss if the defendant was Black.
U.S. District Judge Brian Davis, who moderated a panel discussion on the findings Tuesday night, theorized that discrepancy might be due to the a lack of witness and victim participation.
“And if that's the case, it really does underscore the duality of the African American community’s experience in the criminal justice system,” he said. “On the one hand, we don't want the system to be over-represented by African Americans, or any minority for that matter. But we don't want crime to go unpunished. Drilling down on that figure, for example, is I think going to be extremely important for us to try to get a better handle on.”
The study does not explain the clear discrepancies in outcomes. The population of the 4th district (which includes Clay, Duval and Nassau counties) is 60 percent White and 24 percent Black, but Black defendants made up 51 percent of defendants in criminal cases.
Davis said he would like to see the data collection expanded to include law enforcement on the front end and the judiciary on the back end.
But he said he was “excited” by the study, which he said shows the 4th judicial district is “at the vanguard of criminal justice reform.”
“I’m not so much concerned about the results of the analysis and research as I am about the process being embraced," he said. "I’m excited about the fact that prosecutors and justice system players are starting to look to data to answer questions were we know that the system is skewed in ways we’re all bothered by.”
Nelson noted her office is just one player in the criminal justice system.
“The criminal justice system is huge and unwieldy,” she said. “This information, it allows us to improve our work and drill down where there may be issues and improve what we can do.”