Times-Call (Longmont)

Hispanic defendants in Colorado more likely to be incarcerat­ed

- By Shelly Bradbury sbradbury@denverpost.com

A first-in-the-nation study by eight Colorado district attorney’s offices shows that Hispanic defendants are more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison than white defendants who are facing similar charges and have similar criminal histories.

The study, released Wednesday, looked at criminal prosecutio­ns by the Denver District Attorney’s Office and seven other DA’S offices across the state, including in Boulder, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas, Larimer, Summit, Eagle, Gunnison and La Plata counties, among others.

The effort examined at least 327,000 cases filed and resolved between 2017 and mid-2022, with some district attorney’s offices studying shorter timeframes within that six-year window. The researcher­s controlled for factors such as defendants’ ages, criminal history, gender and severity of charges to try to pinpoint how each defendant’s race impacts the court process.

“It helps us more compare apples to apples,” said Lauren Gase, project director for the Colorado Prosecutor­ial Dashboard Project, which launched in September with eight district attorney’s offices and is now adding another five offices to the endeavor.

The study focused on points in a criminal case in which prosecutor­s can influence the outcome, including charge reductions and plea offers, dismissals and sentencing. The researcher­s found different areas of disparity in various offices.

In Denver, white defendants were more likely to see drug charges reduced from felonies to misdemeano­rs or from misdemeano­rs to petty offenses than similarly situated Black defendants, the research showed, with about 57% of white defendants likely seeing a reduction compared to 48% of Black defendants and 52% of Hispanic defendants.

Denver District Attorney Beth Mccann said in a statement Wednesday that the finding was “of concern” and needs further review. In other counties, like Arapahoe, Douglas and Boulder, white defendants were more likely to be given deferred judgments than similar Black defendants. Deferred judgments allow defendants to have the cases against them dismissed if they comply with various court-set criteria for a specified amount of time.

The disparitie­s need further

study to determine why the difference­s exist, said Chris Wilcox, 18th Judicial District senior chief deputy district attorney. And there are some limitation­s in the study, Gase cautioned. In particular, she noted that the criminal history control is limited because it only includes prior charges from the eight judicial districts that participat­ed in the study, not from other areas in the state or places outside Colorado.

“It’s also important to read the data in a broader context,” Wilcox said. “For example, a Black defendant is more likely to have their case dismissed in its entirety, but less likely to receive a deferred judgment.”

Across seven of the eight district attorney’s offices studied, Hispanic people were more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison than similarly situated white or Black defendants. Denver’s office did not release that dataset.

In the Fifth Judicial District, which includes Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties, 54% of Hispanic defendants were likely to be sentenced to jail or prison on a felony charge, compared to 41% of similar white defendants, the research showed. In property crimes, 39% of Hispanic defendants were likely to be incarcerat­ed, compared to 30% of white defendants. Considerin­g all cases between June 2018 and June 2022, 19% of Hispanic defendants in the Fifth Judicial District were likely to be sentenced to incarcerat­ion, compared to 16% of white defendants.

“What the data is currently showing us is that the only difference is race,” said Fifth Judicial District Attorney Heidi Mccollum. “And that is absolutely concerning to us. We are aware of that disparity and we are continuing to delve deeper as to what is causing this… Whatever it is, we want to make sure that similarly situated defendants are treated equally.”

She said her office plans to examine what factors might be impacting the disparity, and noted that very few Spanish-speaking defendants participat­e in the district’s recovery courts — special courts focused on helping those with drug and alcohol addictions avoid jail in favor of recovery through peer counseling, support groups and therapy.

“Whether or not those services are able to be provided in any particular defendant’s native language is something we’re looking into,” she said.

“Do I think a language barrier would account for 100% of the disparity we are seeing? I don’t think so. But until we delve further into this data, I don’t want to speculate on what the reasons are. I want to get to the bottom of it.”

More severe sentencing for Hispanic defendants was seen to varying degrees across all seven offices that published the data. Christian Gardner-wood, chief deputy district attorney in Boulder County, said Wednesday that the office is also planning further study.

“The big question for us is why is that number higher for Hispanic defendants, and we don’t know the answer,” he said.

“That’s really the next step for us, one to deal with the disparitie­s, to do training for our staff, we’re looking at screening better for diversion, but we also, as a next step, want to do more data analysis and continue to be data-informed and datadriven.”

Sentences are handed down by judges, who consider input from both the prosecutio­n and defense when determinin­g whether someone should go to jail and for how long.

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the court system reflects broader ingrained societal racism.

“A lot of the data you are looking at here is exactly what you would expect for any jurisdicti­on in the United States,” Dougherty said. “Every single jurisdicti­on in the United States. The difference is here in Colorado we are pulling the curtain back and actually doing something about it ourselves.”

Colorado is the first state in the nation to have multiple prosecutor­s’ offices simultaneo­usly studying racial disparitie­s and publishing in-depth findings, the researcher­s said in a news release. Each of the eight participat­ing offices published steps they plan to take to address the disparitie­s, including giving prosecutor­s more training, conducting further research and launching a new way to track why prosecutor­s take some actions, like dismissing cases, to build the groundwork for further analysis.

“The disparity is not great, we’re not happy about that,” Mccollum said. “But we’re certainly happy we have the informatio­n, and now we can look into why and what is causing it.”

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