A new study from the University of Arizona turns conventional wisdom on its head surrounding disproportionately Black prison populations in most states and prosecutors’ bias pursuing cases against Black defendants.

The study, administered online, provided prosecutors with police reports describing a hypothetical crime, which the researchers designed with assistance from experienced prosecutors. All details of the case were the same except for the suspect’s race — either Black or White — and occupation — fast-food worker or accountant — to indicate the suspect’s socioeconomic status. Roughly half of the prosecutors received one version of the case; the other half received the other.

“The disparities in outcomes are indisputable,” said lead study author and professor Christopher Robertson. “As we go through the criminal justice system and think about what the right reforms are, the sheer bias of the prosecutor doesn’t seem to be the biggest one.”

The study, “Race and Class: A Randomized Experiment with Prosecutors,” examined whether prosecutors charged a felony, if they chose to fine the defendant or seek a prison sentence, and the proposed cost of the fine or length of the sentence.

“When we put all those together, we see the same severity of charges, fines, and sentences across all the conditions, whether the defendant was Black, whether the defendant was white, whether the defendant had a high-class career or a low-class career,” Robinson said. “Differences in the actual outcomes — in the actual behavior of the prosecutors — is what we would have expected if they were biased. But since we see no difference in the outcomes, we concluded that they were not substantially biased.”

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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