District Attorneys and Racial Disparities

People of color are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system. The racial disparities are staggering and well-documented nationwide and in Oregon. District attorneys can help address this. But they need to stop ducking their responsibility and denying that disparities exist.

A National Problem

Throughout the US, people of color are more likely to be:

  • Arrested.

    As analysis by USA Today using FBI statistics frames it, people of color are “more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering and marijuana possession.”


An Oregon Problem

Unfortunately, these disparities are not just a national problem. We see them in Oregon too. Oregon’s criminal justice system is plagued by practices that treat people of color unfairly. Here are some examples:

Dispelling Myths

Some law enforcement leaders will try and avoid responsibility by advancing the myth that people of color commit crimes at higher rates. That’s untrue.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) did an excellent job dispelling that argument when examining the racial disparity of drug convictions in Oregon. The CJC looked at the disparate conviction rates for possession of controlled substance broken down by race. Then they looked at the national data on drug use broken down by race.

What they found is that people of color and white people use drugs at about the same rate.  So why are people of color more likely to be arrested, charged, and incarcerated than white people are?

Some District Attorneys Deny the Problem

As the most powerful people in the criminal justice system, district attorneys need to acknowledge that our system is racially biased, and that these disparities exist.  The problem doesn’t get solved without a real commitment from leaders and stakeholders in the justice system.

Unfortunately, some DAs have a history of ignoring the evidence, and responding with denial, shock, confusion, and finger pointing. DAs that acknowledge the issue and commit to working on it will be received with much more trust and respect than those who deny institutional bias exists.

For example, when The Oregonian asked Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote about the startling disparities in heroin and methamphetamine convictions.  “I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I took it back to the whole team. We don’t see a pattern.” Washington County DA, Bob Herman said he was surprised, he worried that the sample size of the research was too small to be useful.

Implicit and Explicit Bias are Real

Bias is real, both implicitly and explicitly.  Even the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged research on implicit bias showing that, despite our best intentions, unconscious prejudice affects all of us, molding our behavior in ways we are unaware of.

Sometimes racial disparity is indeed the result of intent. For example, a Georgia Supreme Court Case found that prosecutors violated the Constitution by proactively striking black jurors when the defendants were black.

The vast majority district attorneys and other officials within the criminal justice system intend to treat others with fairness and equality.  But our district attorneys and the prosecutors that work for them need to acknowledge that the racial bias exists to begin the process of fixing the disparities within our criminal justice system

Pathways to Reform

1. Acknowledge and examine the problem.

This information gathering and analysis is key to helping to identify solutions.

  • Acknowledge that traditional prosecutorial practices and culture have been contributors to racial disparities in case outcomes and incarceration rates.
  • Conduct thorough research to better examine the disparities within your county’s justice system. Multnomah County has been doing critical data collection and analysis that allows the county to identify the degree of racial disparity broken down through all phases of the justice system and by offense type.
  • Collect and report on the race demographics of all cases considered and their final resolution. This kind of data collection can help identify where problems exist.
  • Lobby the legislature for additional funding in order to be able to do this analysis.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the racial and ethnic breakdown of your county or assume that diversity and disparity are urban issues. To be clear, Oregon is an increasingly diverse state and people of color will continue to be a larger and larger part of the state population. The counties with the largest populations of people of color are not strictly urban. They are Jefferson, Malheur, Morrow, Hood River, Marion, Umatilla, Washington, Multnomah, Wasco, and Yamhill.
2. Proactively build relationships with community leaders and organizations that represent the various demographic groups in your county.

3. Equip staff
  • Require staff to go through implicit bias training.
  • Train line prosecutors to ensure robust representation in jury selection of black, brown, immigrant, systems-impacted, and other marginalized communities  
  • Hire more people of color to be prosecutors, victims’ advocates, and to other staff positions, and make sure the DA’s office is an inclusive space.
4. Change who you prosecute