District attorney study finds racial disparity in prosecutions

Blacks, Hispanics face prosecutions at higher rates relative to their populations

A new study by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office about fairness in the criminal system raises questions about disproportionate prosecution of black and Hispanic defendants in the county, and points to a need for further study on the matter, according to District Attorney Jeff Rosen.

The study, "Race and Prosecutions 2013-2015," found that blacks were prosecuted disproportionately for misdemeanors and felonies at more than three times the level that they are represented in the general population, and Hispanics are prosecuted at 1.7 times their population representation. The numbers reverse for Asian/Pacific Islanders, who are prosecuted at only a quarter of their population representation. Whites are prosecuted at about three-quarters of their population, according to the study.

The study did not attempt to ascribe reasons for the disparity, but instead saw the report as a stepping stone to further analyze the decisions the DA's office makes after a case is filed, from plea deals at early stages to recommended sentences after trials, the report noted.

"We wanted to know -- not estimate, not guess, not assume -- how many people of different races and ethnic groups we are prosecuting. Those differences in prosecutions are important to recognize so that we can begin to address as a broader community ... the fact that the race of those arrested for crimes in our county does not mirror the racial makeup of the county as a whole," the report noted.

Black residents represent 2.9 percent of the county's population, but comprised 11 percent of defendants who were prosecuted for felonies and 9 percent for misdemeanors; Hispanics are 26.6 percent of the population, but they represented 44 percent of defendants charged with felonies and 46 percent of those prosecuted for misdemeanors. Whites represent 33.3 percent of the population but 24 percent of white defendants faced felony charges and 27 percent faced misdemeanors; Asian/Pacific Islanders represent the largest percentage of the population at 35.4 percent, but only 8 percent of defendants are prosecuted for felonies and 9 percent face misdemeanors, according to the report.

The race of suspects in cases the DA did not file charges on also showed striking differences when weighed against the percentage of population. From 2013 through 2015, 10 percent of misdemeanor cases against black defendants were not prosecuted, compared to 12 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders, 30 percent for whites and 38 percent for Hispanics.

In non-filed felonies, 11 percent were black, 39 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 25 percent white.

The disparities become less pronounced when looking overall at the percentage of cases filed simply based on comparing demographic groups (as opposed to prosecutions in proportion to percentage of the population).

In 2015, prosecutors filed a total of 89 percent of misdemeanor cases that crossed their desks and 73 percent of felony cases. Against whites facing misdemeanors, 88 percent of cases were filed, 89 percent for blacks, 91 percent for Hispanics and 88 percent for Asians/Pacific Islanders; in felonies, 70 percent of cases were filed against whites, 76 percent against blacks, 74 percent for Hispanics and 72 percent on Asians/Pacific Islanders.

The report also breaks out two other groups: persons who identified themselves as "other" and those whose race was not identified in the DA reports.

The study also examined whether the figures were influenced by prosecutions of defendants who came from outside of the area and committed crimes in Santa Clara County. In general, they were not, according to the report. When examining only Santa Clara County residents who were prosecuted, the report found that 75 percent of persons charged with crimes were county residents. Looking at only those residents, there was little or no change in the race of perpetrators prosecuted compared to the overall numbers of felonies.

The number of defendants overall charged with felonies is lower than in years past, while misdemeanor numbers have risen because of the passage in 2014 of Proposition 47. That law reduced the overall number of felonies charged in the county by more than 2,000 in 2015 because the law reclassified five felonies to misdemeanors. But because of the racial disproportionality across all crime types, the change has had a disproportionate effect to reduce the number of Hispanic and black adults charges with felonies, the report noted.

The percentage of defendants in each racial group also remained consistent regardless of the type of crime reported, whether it was a car stop such as a DUI; face-to-face encounter with police; 911 call, such as domestic violence; or detective investigation, such as burglary; or a resisting arrest case. But the study was careful to point out that it did not intend to imply that any racial or ethnic group was more likely to commit crimes than any other based on this data.

This study did not include cases of major fraud, real estate fraud or other economic crimes because those cases involved fewer charged cases and will require additional study to develop reliable data, the report noted.

The study also looked at mitigating factors often associated with crime, but it did not attempt to ascribe those factors as causes.

The percentage of students dropping out of high school, according to 2014, found that 16.3 percent were black, 20.6 percent Hispanic, 26.3 percent Native American, 9.7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 5.2 percent white. Median household income showed black households earning $52,972, Hispanics $49,996, Asian/Pacific Islanders $106,716 and whites $92,229 annually, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

As the next step, the DA's Office plans to study the decisions that are made after a case is filed, including how plea deals are offered and recommended sentences at trials, the study noted.

The findings are not isolated to Santa Clara County, the report pointed out.

"This kind of racial disparity in the criminal justice system is not unique to Santa Clara County," the report noted. A 2015 study showed that in San Francisco County, blacks represented 6 percent of county residents, but comprised 40 percent of those convicted of crimes, according to the San Francisco Justice Reinvestment Initiative report.

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