Some prosecutors work with the courts to place some criminal defendants in diversion programs rather than incarcerating people who experience poverty or have mental health issues, but without proper data collection, prosecutors cannot guarantee the outcome. equity in the use of these programs. (iStock.com/Morakot Kawinchan)
PRosecutorial diversion programs aim to create fairness in the criminal justice system by ending incarceration of people with mental health and substance abuse issues, but without proper data collection prosecutors cannot guarantee equity in these programs, experts say.
The Prosecutor’s Performance Indicators Project, an initiative led by researchers at Florida International University and Loyola University in Chicago to help prosecutors collect data to improve their methods, recently released a report that examined the racial disparities in the number of people whose cases have been diverted. from criminal courts to diversion programs, such as mental health or substance abuse courts.
According to the report comparing the race and ethnicity of people placed in diversion programs at four prosecutor’s offices in Chicago, Jacksonville, Milwaukee and Tampa, although overall more black than white accused were placed in diversion programs. diversion in three of the four cities, more white defendants than black defendants had their crime cases placed in diversion programs in all cities.
With this data, prosecutors at these offices can use it to inform their prosecution policies and decisions, according to Melba Pearson, director of policy and programs at the FIU’s Justice Administration Center and co-manager of the PPI. .
“While diversion is a great tool, we need to ensure that it is applied fairly, which includes considering factors such as cost, accessibility [and] how the deals are delivered, ”Pearson told Law360.
In Jacksonville, data shows that from 2017 to 2019, the number of black defendants whose misdemeanor cases were diverted from prosecution increased because its prosecutor’s office implemented a program that gives those accused of traffic violations the possibility of having their charges dropped.
Coral Messina, diversion program and smart justice coordinator for the State Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Jacksonville, explained that most drivers have had their licenses suspended due to court fees and charges. unpaid fines rather than reckless driving. program to help these drivers pay off their debt and reinstate their licenses.
The majority of people whose licenses are suspended due to fines and unpaid court costs are black drivers, resulting in more blacks seeing their traffic cases diverted to the KEYS 2 Drive program, according to the report.
Prior to the implementation of the KEYS 2 DRIVE program in 2018, more white defendants than black defendants had their misdemeanor cases placed in Jacksonville’s diversion programs.
Messina noted that a lack of transportation can also prevent people from participating in diversion programs. Without transportation, defendants might think they won’t be able to complete a diversion program, she said.
“Yes [defendants] If we had more information, we would be able to tell them that we will do our best to try to work with you or to accommodate you, ”Messina said.
The success of the KEYS 2 DRIVE program in reversing the demographics of diversion programs illustrates that policy changes in prosecutors’ offices can alter racial disparities in diversion programs, according to the report.
The Project PPI report released on July 27 is a snapshot of the larger reports it released in 2019 that more broadly examine prosecution decisions made in these four offices. The project is currently working with more than 10 additional offices to collect data and analyze trends in their prosecution decisions.
Data in this report is only for 2017 to 2019. Data for 2020 has been excluded from the report due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prosecution decisions.
Prosecutors in Chicago, Milwaukee, Jacksonville and Tampa said they chose to participate in the PPI project which began in 2017 because their offices are committed to making prosecution decisions transparent to their communities.
They said that publishing data creates transparency and that transparency builds trust between prosecutors and their communities. But not everyone has the time to analyze the data, so initiatives like the PPI Project that analyze the data are helpful in creating transparency, said Matthew Saniie, director of data for the Chicago prosecutor’s office.
“When they set up this project and approached us to participate in it, we were very interested in supporting the work and working with them to think about what makes sense for a prosecutor’s office, regarding the identification of key metrics or key indices that we should monitor regularly, ”Saniie said.
Pearson noted that a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system can be a barrier preventing individuals from participating in diversion programs. If defendants are wary of the system, they may not want to participate in a diversion program that will require them to engage in it on a regular basis, she said.
“If you are suspicious of the system, you may not want to engage, and [you] go for something more like, depending on the type of charge, “I’ll just take a conviction and serve time,” Pearson said.
Prosecutors have also said data collection is important because they can’t fix issues they aren’t aware of and the data shows them where the issues may lie. Saniie added that people often talk about the criminal justice system in terms of anecdotes, but stories of terrible shootings don’t give the full picture of what’s going on in the system.
“Without keeping track of the information about what’s really going on, what the results are, how people move through the system, you have no real idea what the criminal justice system is doing,” Saniie said. “You just assume it works. “
However, the data does not necessarily tell prosecutors how to deal with problems in the criminal justice system. Pearson said the data often raises more questions than it answers.
In Tampa, more white defendants who were charged with possession of cocaine or cannabis were placed in pre-trial drug intervention programs than black defendants from 2017 to 2019, according to the report.
This is at least in part because Tampa requires that defendants who participate in its pre-trial intervention program have no criminal records or only have minor convictions to participate in the program, according to the report. . Such criteria disproportionately eliminate people of color from these programs, as communities of color have heavier policing which leads to more arrests and convictions, according to the report.
Tampa State Attorney Andrew Warren said his office is trying to reduce the barriers that prevent defendants from participating in DPTI, but they have not identified the barriers to overcome for all of their diversion programs.
“So for some problems that have been identified, we can see the solutions, we can see what the solution has to be. For other programs, we don’t know exactly what is causing it,” Warren said.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said it was difficult to address racial disparities in diversion programs caused by heavy policing because communities with high crime rates do not want less police in their neighborhoods. When people have multiple convictions on their record, it is difficult to put them in a low-risk category eligible for diversion programs, he said.
“One of the biggest exclusion categories for Milwaukee has been the gun violence stories, and it’s a category I was really hesitant to change,” Chisholm said.
Stephen Siegel, senior assistant prosecutor in the Jacksonville district attorney’s office, which makes his data publicly available on a website dashboard, said prosecutors need to review their policies and decipher the explanation for the data trends.
“The idea on the data dashboard is that it should be an started discussion, not necessarily an end of conversation,” Siegel said.
–Edited by Emily Kokoll.
Do you have a story idea for access to justice? Contact us at [email protected]