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Colorado prosecutors take steps to level the scales of justice

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Robyn Vincent
/
KUNC
Gordon McLaughlin, district attorney for the Eighth Judicial District, discusses efforts to address disparities in Colorado's criminal justice system at a press conference on Sept. 8.

For the first time, Colorado prosecutors are providing the public a window into their work. They have published data dashboards online to show metrics such as the racial and ethnic makeup of people they are prosecuting and how long a person is waiting for their day in court.

Alexis King, district attorney for Jefferson and Gilpin counties, said she has long wanted to measure bias in her office, especially given the number of files on her desk bearing Latino surnames.

“I had no idea how to quantify it, how to acknowledge any impact, or how to start a conversation to solve disparities,” King said during a recent press conference in Denver.

It is the largest effort of its kind in the country, and the ultimate goal is for offices like King’s — that never had access to this data before — to identify patterns and work to address them. In this sphere, data is everything.

According to the data dashboard for King’s First Judicial District, 7% of cases filed in 2021 involved Hispanic defendants. That number was the same for Black defendants.

There are caveats to the data, though.

For one, it does not include population demographics, which advocates say lends important context. The overall Hispanic population in Jefferson and Gilpin counties is 15% and less than 1%, respectively. Meanwhile, Black people comprise 1% or less of the population in these counties. That means the case rate for Hispanic and Black people reflects major disparities.

There also are issues gathering the data. The dashboard website notes, “the data related to Hispanic defendants is likely inaccurate due to difficulties in data collection.” That is because Hispanic defendants are often under-counted and identified as white, King’s office said.

Officials stress what the data dashboards aim to do in their initial stage is to start a conversation and give people a better idea of who is entering the criminal justice system in Colorado.

“One of the most important things is to track the disparities that we're seeing. And I say that as a data person,” said Seleeke Flingai, a senior researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice. The independent think tank focuses on ways to improve the justice system.

“Knowing the issue from a data perspective can help inform any bevy of policies that come from the community,” he said.

Before the data dashboards, the Vera Institute was already working with Boulder County. Researchers analyzed thousands of cases between 2013 and 2019 and found that Black and Hispanic people were more likely to face charges, convictions and incarceration than white people. Meanwhile, unhoused folks comprised a disproportionate number of cases. Flingai said that is not unique to Boulder County.

“I think that it's a combination of lack of housing options, supportive housing for folks, and I think a general desire to kind of hide the problems of our society,” he said. “And so the criminal legal system, unfortunately, has played a major role in that across the country.”

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty welcomes the scrutiny. He chose to work with the Vera Institute, he said, and he volunteered to be a pilot district for the data dashboards project.

“Rather than simply say, ‘It's not our fault, we have the hand that we've been dealt,’ I think we have a responsibility and obligation to do the very best we can to identify where racial inequities exist in the justice system and then to root them out,” Dougherty told KUNC.

One example is how Dougherty’s office deals with adult diversion. That is an area where there are strong racial disparities. Diversion rates are 69% for white defendants, 19% for Hispanic people, and 4% for Black residents.

The disparity is less pronounced among juvenile cases with 63% of white cases and 30% of Hispanic cases diverted. So the Boulder DA is pushing — or diverting more young people of color — into other programs to keep them out of detention centers.

“So what we realized was we should have the same screening method for juveniles and adults,” he said, “because what we're doing with adult cases is having our roughly 40 prosecutors use their own discretion in determining whether a case is appropriate for diversion or not.”

In other words, with 40 prosecutors, you are likely to have 40 different approaches and philosophies, Dougherty said.

Dougherty is holding weekly public meetings so people can ask questions about the data displayed on the dashboards. Public outreach is part of what researchers intended for this project.

“What we have really pushed is for each office to review its data and do some interpretation and some critical reflection,” said Laura Gase with the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at University of Denver, the lead group working on the data dashboards.

She hopes the data spurs questions such as, “Is this where we want to be in terms of our dismissal rate ... in terms of the sentences that are being imposed for felony offenses?”

Numbers for a new era

Over in Fort Collins, District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin is also focused on engaging the community with this data — and figuring out how he can use it to chip away at disparities and prevent people from entering the justice system.

“One of the reasons I ran for this office is trying to figure out what is most effective and understanding that traditional thoughts of, you know, throw people in jail is not necessarily the most effective way,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin has already started making changes from what he has learned through the data dashboards. One thing that strikes him is how long people are waiting for answers on their cases.

“Most jurisdictions, including us, found when we looked at the graph in our dataset, which goes back to 2017, that cases have been taking longer and longer to resolve,” he said.

The result is delayed justice for victims, delayed accountability for defendants, and a longer time before they get connected to the resources they need.

McLaughlin has been drilling down on these new numbers and brainstorming solutions. One focus area is the timeline for making misdemeanor offers to defendants charged with felonies.

“Are we making that misdemeanor offer a month into the case or nine months into that case? And if it is nine months, what was the cause of that delay?”

DAs McLaughlin and Dougherty are Democrats who are quick to acknowledge the social justice component of their work. They both said the murder of George Floyd was a watershed moment. It deepened the public’s lack of trust in the justice system and intensified community demands for transparency. The pursuit of this data is directly related to that.

But the new dashboards are a bi-partisan effort.

In one of the fastest growing areas in the state, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said his office did not have the resources to participate in the pilot phase. But the Republican is on board for the next that researchers will begin soon.

District attorneys are in charge of selecting the data categories they publish and Rourke already has data points in mind.

“I think that one of the most important things that the community would want to know, based on my interactions with my community, is how are we doing from a racial perspective, from an implicit bias, from an outward bias perspective?” Rourke said.

Like other DAs and researchers, Rourke said shining a light on potential disparities is only a first step — the first of many when it comes to working toward a justice system that is truly blind.

I am an investigative reporter on KUNC's investigative desk. I'm interested in our region's appetite for — and aversion to — equity, whether that's in housing, healthcare, education, politics or policy.