Prosecutors as the Most Powerful Actor in the Criminal Justice System φ Race, Racism and the Law

 

The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are extraordinary and well-documented. In 1995, nearly one in three African American men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were under the supervision of the criminal justice system–either in jail, prison, on probation, or on parole. Today, one in every ten black Angela J Davismales in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. Over 60% of all prisoners in 2010 were Black or Latino. The disparities exist at every step of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing.

Much has been written about why the American criminal justice system is so fraught with racial disparity. Some point to discriminatory *823 decision-making by criminal justice officials at each step of the process while others suggest that disproportionate offending is the cause. In fact, there are many complex reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon. Criminal justice officials–including police officers, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials–make discretionary decisions that often have a racial impact. In addition, the socioeconomic causes of crime disproportionately affect people of color. The impact of the War on Drugs cannot be overstated, and there are undoubtedly many other factors that have contributed to the startling statistics and overwhelming evidence of racial disparity. Not surprisingly, as the causes of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system stem from many sources, so must the solutions.
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Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system. They make the decisions that control the system, and they exercise almost boundless discretion in making those decisions.  Many argue that police officers are the most important officials in their role as the gatekeepers who bring individuals into the system. There is no doubt that police officers exercise broad discretion in deciding whether to stop and/or arrest individuals for criminal behavior. However, police officers only have the power to bring individuals to the courthouse door. It is the prosecutors whose decisions keep them there and firmly entrench them in the system–decisions that have life-changing consequences.

The most important prosecutorial decisions are the charging and plea bargaining decisions. Prosecutors control and almost predetermine the outcome of criminal cases through these two critical decisions. They decide whether to charge an individual with a crime and what the charge or charges should be, and they enjoy vast discretion in making this decision. Even if a prosecutor believes she can prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, she is not required to charge that individual. If she does decide to charge, she often has discretion to charge either a misdemeanor or felony. For example, if an individual is arrested with a large quantity of cocaine, the police officer might recommend that the person be charged with Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine–a felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. The prosecutor has a number of choices. She may decide to charge the person with the felony, but she also has the discretion to charge him with simple possession–a misdemeanor that may result in a probationary sentence with fewer collateral consequences. The prosecutor may also choose not to charge the person at *833 all. The charging decision is totally within the discretion of the prosecutor.

Prosecutors enjoy the same discretion in the plea-bargaining process. They are not required to offer the defendant a plea to a lesser offense, but if they do, they decide what that offer will be. Certainly a defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense if the prosecutor dismisses all other offenses, but the decision is up to the prosecutor. And with the existence of so many offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, the plea bargaining power has become even more important. Since going to trial always carries the risk of conviction, the only way a defendant can be assured that he will not be convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence is to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Ninety-five percent of all criminal cases are resolved by way of a plea. Prosecutors’ control of the charging and plea-bargaining decisions almost permits them to predetermine the outcome of most criminal cases.

Charging and plea-bargaining decisions have a tremendous impact on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. If a prosecutor charges an African American with a crime but chooses not to charge his similarly situated white counterpart, or chooses to charge the white counterpart with a less serious offense, she will create an unwarranted disparity. But the problem is a complex one. A prosecutor is rarely presented with two cases–one white defendant, one black–with exactly the same circumstances (same prior record, same facts, etc.) where she consciously chooses to treat the black defendant more harshly. She may unconsciously empathize with a white defendant and give him preferable treatment, or she may offer a white defendant better treatment for legitimate reasons that produce a racial impact.

Consider the case of a white defendant who is arrested for selling cocaine in his dorm room. The arresting officer recommends that he *834 be charged with distribution of cocaine–a felony offense with a five year mandatory minimum sentence. The defendant’s parents hire an attorney who tells the prosecutor that the defendant is suffering from a debilitating drug addiction and was selling drugs only to support his own addiction. The attorney indicates that the defendant has been accepted to a six-month program at a residential drug treatment facility. He also informs the prosecutor that the defendant is an honor student who planned to apply to law school, that he has never been arrested in his life, and that a felony conviction would ruin his career and his life. A prosecutor might legitimately offer such a defendant a plea to a misdemeanor offense, or even dismiss the case all together. One could see how a prosecutor might empathize with such a defendant, subconsciously seeing himself and perhaps remembering his own “youthful indiscretions.”

That same prosecutor might handle the case of a similarly situated black defendant quite differently. Consider the black defendant arrested for selling cocaine on the street corner in his neighborhood. The arresting office recommends the same charge–distribution of cocaine. This defendant is poor and represented by an overworked public defender. The public defender discovers that his client is addicted to cocaine and was selling the drug only to support his habit. The family cannot afford to pay for residential treatment and there are no free programs available. The defendant does not have a prior criminal record but is a high school dropout with no employment prospects. The public defender asks the prosecutor to consider dismissing the case, and the prosecutor declines.

The prosecutor’s decisions in these cases would produce a racial disparity, but were her decisions unfair or unjustified? Shouldn’t a prosecutor pursue an outcome that results in an alternative to incarceration, thereby saving scarce government resources, especially if she does not believe that the defendant poses a danger to the community? Is it the prosecutor’s fault that the black defendant could not afford to pay for a drug program and was neither employed nor in school? Yet the black defendant did not appear to be any more deserving of a prison term than the white defendant. The prosecutor may have had an unconscious bias towards the white defendant and against the black defendant, but how could that be proven? And even if it were true, would it matter, considering all the other factors?

If prosecutors charge African American and Latino defendants with crimes while neglecting to charge their similarly situated white counterparts, they may be engaging in race-based selective prosecution. *835 Race-based selective prosecution violates the Constitution, but proving it is difficult. As with racial profiling, the victim of selective prosecution must prove that the prosecutor intended to discriminate against him because of his race. The Court practically closed the door on all claims of race-based selective prosecution when it decided United States v. Armstrong. In Armstrong, the Court held that in order to get discovery to prove selective prosecution, the defendant must show that similarly situated whites could have been charged, but were not –an impossible showing for almost anyone.

The Supreme Court has consistently required proof of intentional discrimination in criminal cases, and the amount and type of proof necessary have made successful challenges extremely difficult, if not impossible. In McCleskey v. Kemp, Mr. McCleskey presented a sophisticated study of how the death penalty was implemented in the state of Georgia. The study, conducted by Professors David Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth (known as “the Baldus Study”) produced startling racial disparities in the implementation of the death penalty and concluded that black defendants who kill whites were more likely to receive a death sentence. The Court accepted the validity of the study and its findings, but nonetheless declined to reverse Mr. McCleskey’s death sentence. Because the study did not prove that the prosecutors in Mr. McCleskey’s case intended to discriminate against him because of his race, the Court rejected his claim.

The difficulty of proving intentional discrimination does not pose the most difficult challenge, since intentional discrimination is rarely the cause of racial disparity in today’s criminal justice system. Most racial disparities are caused and/or exacerbated by prosecutors’ race-neutral decisions which may be influenced by unconscious racism. *836 These race neutral decisions, even though unintentional, may have a racial impact.

Whether or not prosecutors intentionally or unconsciously discriminate against defendants of color in the charging and plea-bargaining processes, their decisions–even the race-neutral ones–may cause or exacerbate racial disparities. Their tremendous power and discretion is often exercised in ways that produce unintended and undesirable consequences. However, that same power and discretion can be used to remedy the problem. The next section will examine one possible solution.

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Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a complex problem with many disparate causes. Its elimination will require change within and outside of the criminal justice system. The socio-economic causes of crime may never be totally eliminated. However, individuals in the criminal justice system can have an impact on the problem. Prosecutors are particularly suited to help eliminate racial disparities because of their power and discretion.

Prosecutors must not only be willing to replicate the Prosecution and Racial Justice Program, they must be willing to change their practices and policies in ways that will have a real impact. Sometimes these changes will involve abandoning traditional methods of decision-making to achieve fairness. For example, even though considering *851 a defendant’s prior record as a factor in the decision to charge is appropriate, if the existence of prior records is the main reason why otherwise similarly situated black defendants are being charged while whites are not, prosecutors should consider abandoning that factor. Public safety must remain the priority, but there are many defendants arrested for nonviolent offenses with criminal records of nonviolent offenses. Even if prosecutors focused on nonviolent offenses alone and abandoned or reduced reliance on traditional charging considerations in those cases, they could make a difference.

The Prosecution and Racial Justice Program is not a panacea, but it is one remedy that can make a difference. However, it can only work with the participation of chief prosecutors who are willing to make racial justice a priority. The prosecutors who have worked with PRJ have demonstrated that commitment. They took a chance that produced positive results in their offices and serve as examples for other prosecutors who seek to fulfill their duty to assure a fair and effective criminal justice system.


Angela J. Davis is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and the former director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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