Researchers looked at all elected city, county and judicial district prosecutors, as well as state attorneys general, in office across the country during the summer of 2014. Kentucky had the most elected prosecutors, 161, and three states — Alaska, Hawaii and New Hampshire — had none.
The study found that 15 states had exclusively white elected prosecutors: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. In Kentucky and Missouri, which also has more than 100 elected prosecutors, all but one was white, according to the analysis.
As a nation, are we still so naive as to believe that race and culture don't actually inform how people see the world and treat others? If so, then it's highly likely that a vast swath of our country has no problem whatsoever with 95 percent of elected prosecutors being white—because, in their mind, race means nothing and informs zero decisions that are ever made.
“I think most people know that we’ve had a significant problem with lack of diversity in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system for a long time,” said Bryan A. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that offers legal representation for poor defendants and prisoners. “I think what these numbers dramatize is that the reality is much worse than most people imagine and that we are making almost no progress.”
Mr. Stevenson said that while African-Americans had increased in number in mayoral positions and police forces in recent decades, the numbers suggested that the prosecutorial field had not kept pace.
When we learn of the racist and downright frightening comments
made by District Attorney Dale Cox of Shreveport, Louisiana, we see that race clearly matters. And this man is not just talking, but sending black men to death row, many believed to be completely innocent, at a record pace.
In St. Louis, race matters to County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. For decades he has drawn harsh criticism.
When white police officers fired 21 shots and killed two unarmed black men in a fast food parking lot, McCulloch replied to critics by calling them "bums." The officers claimed they thought the men were going to run them over.
A subsequent federal investigation showed that the men were unarmed and that their car had not moved forward when the officers fired 21 shots and killed the suspects, Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley. The probe, however, also concluded that because the officers feared for their safety, the shootings were justified.
McCulloch didn’t prosecute the officers. He specifically drew the ire of defense lawyers and protesters, who had been holding demonstrations and threatened to block Highway 40,when he said of Murray and Beasley, “These guys were bums.”
The reverse of this also appears to be true. In Baltimore, one of the rare cities with an African American elected prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, six officers were indicted for their role in the murder of Freddie Gray
In Brooklyn, where NYPD Officer Peter Liang shot and killed an unarmed man, Akai Gurley, in the stairwell of his own apartment, and then refused him first aid and argued with his partner over who should call it in, an elected African American prosecutor, Kenneth Thompson, filed manslaughter charges against the officer.
This racial disparity is no easy problem to solve, either. In cities like St. Louis or Shreveport, conservative white prosecutors, like Bob McCulloch, have held their positions for longer than some of us have been alive and give no hints whatsoever about moving on or stepping down. When asked what role race even plays in the justice system, DA Dale Cox of Shreveport said,
“People have played the race card in this country for so long, and at some point we really need to stop and say, ‘O.K., that was a long, long, long time ago. It’s different now.’ ” He said, “Yeah, a lot of terrible things have happened in the world everywhere. And in some places it gets better, like here. And in some places it doesn’t, like Africa or Kosovo.”
The real question is not whether or not the system is broken, but whether it is actually operating just as those leading it have intended from the start.
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