Prosecutors in Colorado conduct in-depth data analysis to help reduce racial disparities

an abstrac view through pillars at a legal establishment

At Microsoft, we are committed to helping address racial injustice and inequity in the United States for Black and African American communities. As part of the Microsoft Racial Equity Initiative, we use data, technology, and partnerships to help improve the safety and wellbeing of our employees and their communities – including skills and education, broadband connectivity, nonprofits, and justice reform. As part of this initiative, our ambitions for justice reform focus on empowering communities by increasing access to data-driven insights that highlight racial disparities. By leveraging technology to enable analysis and visualizations, our goal is to enable users to better understand trends, generate insights, and inform policy and practice change.

Today, as we continue to support organizations working to expand access to data-driven insights we’re sharing an update on our partnership with Prosecutorial Performance Indicators and the project they’re leading across eight district attorney offices in Colorado. This work aligns with our commitment to ensuring community members, nonprofit organizations, and system actors have the tools they need to evaluate data, generate crucial insights, and develop shareable findings. By providing access to data that promotes accountability and transparency, community members and policy-makers have critical insights that can help drive equitable approaches to the legal system.

In recent news, we’ve seen reports of Department of Justice investigations in places like Louisville, Kentucky, where they’ve used data to determine how law enforcement and government agencies have been engaging in patterns of discriminatory behavior against Black and African American community members over time. The report outlined the disproportionate use of excessive force, searches conducted without valid warrants and the use of no-knock warrants on Black individuals.

We’ve also seen examples of data-driven policy changes to address systemic bias: for instance, in Ramsey County Minnesota, they are no longer prosecuting felony cases against people who were unfairly targeted and detained during traffic stops. This decision was made based on research that indicated that racial and ethnic bias was playing a role in decision-making related to non-public safety stops, which ultimately had no impact on overall public safety.

Leveraging data to drive policy change in response to community feedback, formal investigation, or deadly circumstances is critical to addressing disparities in the justice system. But proactively reviewing data and conducting analyses of policies and practices is also important to identifying systemic opportunities to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

To help identify opportunities to proactively reduce racial and ethnic disparities, district attorneys who are participating in the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards Project, are now working together on a first-in-the-nation state-level project to examine prosecutorial practices and decision-making.

Promoting more effective, just, and transparent decision-making in prosecution practices

Colorado is the first state in the country to have multiple prosecutors’ offices working together to proactively provide this type of in-depth data and analysis. This bipartisan effort helps offices identify and prioritize actions that can be taken at points of prosecutorial discretion to make sure defendants and victims are treated fairly.

Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty reflected on this effort, saying, “Colorado is moving to become the first state to embrace data dashboards for all the district attorneys’ offices. Together, we are working hard to build a more transparent and equitable justice system for victims and defendants. The data continues to inform the concrete action steps already underway with the expansion of our diversion programs, screening of cases coming into the office, and our ongoing collaboration with other criminal justice partners. I am glad that Colorado is on the forefront of this critical work.”

Reports provide an in-depth understanding of potential disparities in processes

In February, across the eight district attorneys’ offices that participated in an initial dashboard project, they released a series of reports to provide the offices with a more in-depth understanding of racial and ethnic differences in their prosecution processes. The new reports offer a deeper dive into key points of discretion to understand whether there are differences in outcomes for individuals of different races/ethnicities.

The resulting findings show evidence of disproportionality, meaning that more Hispanic and Black individuals were arrested than expected given the population. The report also shows some evidence of disparity at points of prosecutorial discretion. For example:

  • A greater percentage of cases involving Black individuals were dismissed or had their charges reduced
  • A greater percentage of cases involving Hispanic individuals resulted in a guilty plea
  • In some jurisdictions, a greater percentage of cases involving Hispanic or Native American individuals were sentenced to incarceration

While the data indicates there is still work to be done, access to data and insights of this kind is helping shape policies and programs to address these issues. To support accountability, each office identified key takeaways and a set of next steps in their report.

“Continued analysis and action surrounding disparities in the criminal justice system is an undertaking we are committed to,” said Eighth Judicial District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin. “We volunteered for this project because we believe in transparency and data-based decision making. Since the dashboard release in September, we have taken significant steps to begin to address disparities in our data, including office-wide anti-racism training provided by the Boulder YWCA, educating other criminal justice stakeholders, and the further expansion of our diversionary programs.”

The outcomes of these analyses, like the expansion of diversionary programs, can have significant long-term impacts on public safety, crime rates, and overall cost efficiencies. These programs are designed to target quality-oflife issues that lead to criminalized behavior, like food and housing insecurity, joblessness, lack of educational resources, and unmet mental health needs. They recognize the individual and community harm associated with justice system involvement and aim to provide alternatives that are more likely to reduce crime. In some instances, participants who enter diversion programs are 58% less likely to be arrested after their enrollment in the program compared to those who went through the standard process.

The driving force behind the Colorado Data Dashboards project

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators, launched by researchers from Loyola University of Chicago and Florida International University, created a dashboard of 55 indicators to assess prosecutorial progress on efficiency, community safety, and fairness. Their objective is to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system whether they stem from victim or defendant identity. This includes indicators such as diversion differences by defendant race/ethnicity, charging and plea offer differences, and case dismissal differences.

The racial disparities analysis is a continuation of the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboards project we announced last September, in which the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver, and the Center for Criminal Justice at Loyola University Chicago, worked with Colorado District Attorneys’ offices to develop publicly available data dashboards to promote more effective, just, and transparent decision-making in prosecution practices.

To enable the dashboards, the Colorado Prosecutorial Dashboard Project leverages Microsoft Azure for government to ensure compliance with the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Security Policy requirements for security and data protection. Each office also has access to a set of internal Power BI dashboards that provide interactive data visualizations designed to help guide decision making on where policy and practice changes could be most impactful.

As we look at the impact of expanded access to data-driven insights in Colorado, we are hopeful that other communities around the United States seek out similar opportunities to leverage data to evaluate practices and drive policy change.

As long as policing, programs and practices within the United States justice system continue to exacerbate racial inequities and disproportionately impact communities of color, we will remain committed to preventing unnecessary justice system involvement and eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in policing and prosecution practices.

Tags: , , , , ,