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Colorado Lab Partners With District Attorneys' Offices to Analyze Racial Disparities in Prosecution

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Nika Anschuetz





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lady justice holding scales with a blindfold

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, concerned citizens across the nation have called for systemic changes in the nation’s criminal justice system. To help address longstanding inequities within the prosecutorial system, the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab (Colorado Lab) is analyzing data from district attorneys’ offices across the state.

In collaboration with the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators Project and the Center for Criminal Justice at Loyola Chicago, the Colorado Lab developed public dashboards, a window into each office’s prosecutorial data. It follows the prosecution process and includes information on felony referrals, charges and filing, case resolution, diversion and deferrals, sentencing, defendant characteristics, serving victims, and staffing and caseload.

Currently, the dashboard includes data from eight district attorneys’ offices. Since the project’s launch in September, five more offices have joined. Together, the 13 offices represent more than half of the state’s counties and 75% of the population.

“This is a bipartisan effort. It’s metro, rural, urban. It’s really across the state. I think that’s just the idea [that] bringing data into decision-making shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” says Lauren Gase, project director at the Colorado Lab.

In February, the Colorado Lab issued a series of reports analyzing racial and ethnic disparities in prosecution. They looked at four major decision points: whether the case was accepted or declined; whether it was dismissed or concluded with a guilty plea or deferred judgment; whether the charge was reduced; and whether the case closed with a sentence to incarceration.

Across seven of the eight offices, Hispanic individuals were more likely to be sentenced to prison than their white and Black counterparts. In the City and County of Denver, meanwhile, Black individuals make up 9% of the population and 24% of the arrests. White individuals charged with drug offenses were more likely to have their charges reduced than their Black and Hispanic counterparts.

“We ran regression models, which allows us to look at potential differences in the outcomes by race and ethnicity after controlling for defendant and case characteristics. We controlled for gender, age, criminal history, case length, disposition quarter, the type of charge and the class of charge,” Gase says.

Because the Colorado Lab disaggregated the data, researchers were able to dig deeper into specific types of crimes on specific levels of charges. For example, in the state’s 1st Judicial District, Hispanic people were least likely to have a traffic charge or a low-level offense dismissed or reduced.

“The disparities analysis reflected what we knew in our guts but never had tangible evidence for. We know that we’re negatively affecting our Latino community on traffic and low-level offenses,” District Attorney Alexis King says. “It was wonderful to be able to narrow our focus. That was something we knew but didn’t know how to direct our energy.”

John Kellner, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, says the project isn’t a one-off data-collection system. Instead, he hopes the data fundamentally impacts the office.

“You’ve got to create something that will carry on past your time. This collaboration with the Colorado Lab gives us this opportunity. It’s something that will carry on for years to come. This excites me because it has a chance to last,” Kellner says. 

With 13 of the state’s 22 judicial districts on board, the Colorado Lab is working toward a statewide scale. The project anticipates adding five more offices to the dashboard this summer.

“I’m incredibly proud of the DAs in Colorado that have taken this on as an opportunity. It is one that requires vulnerability. We could not have done it without the Colorado Lab,” King says.