Study by the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance Analyzes Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Brooklyn DA Office’s Prosecutorial Processes

Thursday, October 28, 2021


Study by the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance Analyzes Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Brooklyn DA Office’s Prosecutorial Processes

Attorney’s Office found fewer than expected racial disparities in outcomes; study looked at over three years of data to assess and improve ongoing reforms to ensure equal justice for all

Today, the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) released the findings of a multi-year study analyzing racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes at key points in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s (DA’s) Office’s decision-making process. Conducted as part of the DA Eric Gonzalez’s Justice 2020 initiative with joint support from Arnold Ventures and the William T. Grant Foundation, the research presented in Justice in Decision-Making: Studying Racial & Ethnic Disparities in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office found that while disparities existed at specific decision points and for certain crimes, outcomes were not universally worse for Black and Hispanic people, and better for white and Asian people, across all stages. These findings will be used to inform the creation and refining of data-driven, equity-focused prosecutorial processes and increase transparency at the office.

The findings—derived from data collected between 2016 and mid-2019—paint a nuanced and complex picture that assesses not only current policies and practices shaped by ongoing reforms within the office but also now-defunct practices that have since been phased out; system stakeholders outside the prosecutor’s authority; and broader root causes of racial inequity in America. After analyzing outcomes at every step from case acceptance to sentencing, ISLG found that while Black and Hispanic people were more likely to exit the system at various points than white people, those who stayed in the system had worse outcomes in various circumstances. Disparities were not pervasive across points, which may be attributed, at least in certain respects, to ongoing reform strategies advanced by the DA over the past several years. Evidence suggested that policy changes enacted by the DA may have lessened disparities in certain outcomes over time, providing useful information on what may and may not be working.

Looking specifically at each decision point, ISLG identified the following key findings after other demographic characteristics, criminal history, and case characteristics were accounted for:

  • Prosecutors were more likely to decline to prosecute cases involving Black and Hispanic people accused of crimes, though by very small margins. However, up until 2019, Black and Hispanic people were more likely than white people to have their cases accepted for prosecution for misdemeanor drug offenses, and especially for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Prosecutors were also more likely to dismiss cases with Black and Hispanic defendants at or following arraignment, and these differences were somewhat larger and more meaningful than those found at case acceptance.
  • Black and Hispanic people were less likely to have their top charge reduced and were more likely to experience detention post-arraignment—largely due to failure to make bail compared to white people.
  • When convicted, Black and Hispanic people were less likely to negotiate a plea to a lesser charge and, at least for misdemeanors, were slightly more likely to receive jail or prison sentences compared to white people. They were also more likely to receive custodial sentences for felony drug offenses.

The research presented in Justice in Decision-Making is a crucial first step towards developing a more holistic understanding of where racial and ethnic disparities exist in the Brooklyn DA’s processes, learning the factors and circumstances that appear to drive them, and outlining further areas of work to address them. The DA’s partnership with ISLG and broader commitment to transparency is a critical ingredient towards sustaining current efforts working to eliminate disparities and, ultimately, creating a more equitable criminal legal system. Using the findings from this analysis, the DA’s office will work to implement recommendations derived from ISLG’s work across three main areas related to Justice 2020s goals: continued monitoring and evaluation; additional decision-point and/or charge-specific policy and practice considerations; and expanded community and collaboration with other criminal legal system actors.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said, “Transparency and accountability are bedrock principals of my Office and integral part of my Justice 2020 action plan. The comprehensive data analysis performed by ISLG is particularly instructive as we continuously strive to lessen racial inequities in the justice system because it points to areas of successful reforms and provides a roadmap to aspects that require additional efforts. I am grateful to Michael Jacobson and his team for their diligent work on this study, and remain committed to keep pushing for a fairer justice system that keeps our community safe while strengthening community trust. I hope that other prosecutorial agencies spend resources on learning about the outcomes of their decision-making processes and on how they can improve them.”

“We were very pleased to partner with the DA and his office on this important initiative,” said Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance. “Our report shows that over the past several years, the DA’s office has been able to offset some of the disparities affecting Black and Hispanic communities in Brooklyn. Given the important role that prosecutors play in the criminal legal system, there is great potential to build on these efforts to advance equal justice more broadly. By investing in data and analytics, and through his willingness to open his office up to this in-depth and objective analysis, DA Gonzalez is taking an important step towards transparency and accountability that can serve as a model for other offices across the nation.” “I commend DA Gonzalez and his staff for their willingness to open their data systems to scrutiny,” commented Adam Gamoran, President of the William T. Grant Foundation. “We know that at a national level our justice system often falls short of equal justice, and too many prosecutors hide behind impenetrable data to obscure unequal outcomes. The partnership between DA Gonzalez and ISLG is just the sort of bold initiative we need to pinpoint the problems at the local level, and to see whether progressive reforms will actually make a difference for reducing inequities while preserving public safety.”

“Prosecutors are one of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system, and it is critical that their vast discretion be informed by data and evidence in order to ensure that their decision-making truly promotes justice and community safety,” said Jeremy Travis, Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice. “For too long, prosecutors have processed people through the criminal justice system without considering the consequences of their decisions, especially possible racial disparities in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. This report helps to build the much-needed evidence base that can support a new model of evidence-based prosecution — one focused on best practices, transparency, and accountability.” The research aims to directly inform the DA’s office’s efforts to ensure safety and fairness in its own decision-making practices; however, it also has great national relevance during a time of increasing calls for action to eliminate racial inequities in the criminal legal system. As the gatekeepers to this system, prosecutors wield significant power and discretion across all stages. While strategies to eliminate disparities more broadly are often beyond the sole discretion of prosecutors, drawing on the influence they do have—particularly as it relates to racial and ethnic biases within their own processes and structures—can lead to positive change. Prosecutorial efforts may also fuel collaborations with other system actors to further reduce racial and ethnic disparities in criminal legal system outcomes.

Justice 2020 was launched as DA Gonzalez’s plan of action aimed at keeping Brooklyn safe and strengthening community trust by ensuring fairness and equal justice for all. It is made up of 17 specific recommendations that are being implemented to radically transform his Office into a model of a progressive prosecutorial agency in the 21st Century.

To read more information about the Justice 2020 Initiative, see here. For more in ISLG’s involvement with it, see here.


About the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance

The CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) is a good governance think-and-do tank. ISLG is driven by the idea that data-informed approaches can measurably improve the way government and public institutions operate, equitably serve all constituents, and ultimately solve social policy problems. It also provides the knowledge and action needed to fuel those approaches. With the necessary research, policies, partnerships, and infrastructures, ISLG helps government and public institutions work more effectively, efficiently, and in the interest of all communities.

About Arnold Ventures

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. Driven by a mission to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice, it invests in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. Arnold Ventures is headquartered in Houston, with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

About the William T. Grant Foundation

The William T. Grant Foundation invests in high-quality research focused on reducing inequality in youth outcomes and improving the use of research evidence in decisions that affect young people in the United States. Although there is mounting research evidence about the scope, causes, and consequences of inequality in the United States, we need stronger bodies of knowledge on ways to reduce it. To address this complex challenge, the foundation supports research from a range of disciplines and methodologies, and encourages investigations into various systems, including justice, housing, child welfare, mental health, and education.