IN THE year since the police killing of George Floyd, the country has done a lot of soul searching about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Most of the attention has been focused on police and the need for fundamental change and accountability. But if there is to be successful criminal justice reform, there must be a reassessment of the prosecutors who wield enormous power in shaping the outcomes of criminal cases. So it’s good that the state’s attorney in Montgomery County has become the latest reform-minded prosecutor to undertake an examination of whether racial bias plays a role in his office’s decisions.
State’s Attorney John McCarthy announced last month that he has commissioned an outside review of the department to examine if there are racial, gender or ethnic disparities in how the law is applied. How do prosecutors determine what cases to pursue? How do they decide who gets a plea deal, who goes to jail and who is offered diversion? National studies have shown that Black defendants face worse outcomes than White ones in similar cases.
Mr. McCarthy said he is confident his staff is trained to make proper decisions, but that questions about the role of bias in the criminal justice system must be answered with data-driven solutions. “I want to see if there are blind spots, if there is implicit bias,” he said. The $500,000 study, to be conducted by researchers from the Center for the Administration of Justice at Florida International University and the University of Maryland, is expected to begin this fall, will last two years, and will involve both data analysis and engaging the community through “listening tours.” The findings of the report, and its recommendations, will be made public; the researchers will also establish a dashboard that will grant public access to data about the office’s decisions.
Montgomery County’s effort is in line with a nationwide push for accountability from prosecutors that looks beyond caseloads and conviction rates as measures of performance, since those standards have contributed to the over-incarceration of Black people. The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for lower incarceration rates, has teamed up with prosecutors from across the country to examine data on charges and convictions, provide staff training and community outreach in an effort to quantify, and reduce disparities. Among those partnering with the group is Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We want to address . . . the way the system cements racial and economic divides,” said Ms. Dehghani-Tafti, “but we want to do it in a way that enhances public safety . . . justice and safety are not two separate things.”
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