Black and Hispanic people in Boulder County are more likely to be charged with a crime, convicted and sentenced to jail or prison than white residents, according to a new study into the practices of the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office.
Black people in Boulder County have for years been charged with crimes at five to six times the rate that white people were charged, and Hispanic people charged at about three times the rate white people were charged, according to the two-year study by the Vera Institute, a national organization focused on criminal justice reform.
The study examined more than 58,000 criminal cases prosecuted by the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office between 2013 and 2019.
Black people made up about 1% of Boulder County’s population in 2018 and 2019, but accounted for 5% of the county’s criminal defendants; Hispanic people made up about 13% of the county’s population, but 25% of criminal defendants. The county was about 79% white, but white people made up just 68% of criminal defendants.
Additionally, in 2018 and 2019, 34% of people in Boulder County sentenced to prison were Hispanic and 7% were Black, both disproportionately high numbers when compared to the county population’s overall racial breakdown.
“In short, we see that the disparities start at the beginning of the system and, in the most serious of sentences, ending in prison, the disparities actually increase,” Seleeke Flingai, a senior research associate at Vera, said during a July 7 presentation on the research.
In addition to racial disparities throughout the court process, the study also found that people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately brought into the court system: only about .5% of Boulder County’s population is homeless, but 10% of adult felony criminal cases between 2018 and 2019 were brought against people experiencing homelessness.
Defendants considered to be transient, homeless or living in a shelter were more likely to face drug charges, more likely to be sent to jail, and less likely to see their charges dismissed than housed people, the study found.
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who took office in 2018, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, but said during the July 7 presentation that prosecutors in the office already have made some reforms, but that the study shows they have “more work to do.”
“As prosecutors, it would be a mistake for us to simply sit back and say racism exists in the country and the fact that it flows into the justice system is not our problem,” he said. “Rather, we have to take responsibility for the courts that we control, the parts that we have authority over, and do our very best to identify where those disparities exist.”
The study also found that the district attorney’s office has in recent years expanded its diversion programs — in which prosecutors typically dismiss charges if defendants meet certain criteria or take certain steps — which has reduced the number of people being sentenced to probation and jail.
Additionally, the office is doing a better job of offering diversion to juvenile defendants of all races, the study found. In the past, white children were much more likely to be offered diversion than Black or Hispanic children, but that gap has narrowed since 2018, the study found.
Dougherty said his staff now reviews nearly all juvenile cases to see if the children are eligible for diversion, and prosecutors now divert more kids out of the court system than they prosecute.
For adult diversion, which is less widespread, white defendants are still more likely to be offered diversion than Black or Hispanic defendants, according to the study.
The study’s findings are similar to the situation researchers found last year in the Denver District Attorney’s Office, where Black and Hispanic people were treated more harshly than their white counterparts in multiple ways.
Vera Institute will “this summer” release a final written report on the research in Boulder, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said in a news release Tuesday, and the DA’s office plans to publish a “public-facing dashboard” that will allow anyone to access the data as it continues to reform its operations.
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