Only 1% of elected U.S. prosecutors are women of color

July 8, 2015, 4:04 PM UTC
6 Baltimore Police officers indicted in death of Freddie Gray
Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announces the indictments of six Baltimore police officers on various charges related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore on Thursday, May 21, 2015. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images)
Photograph by Kevin Richardson — Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

It looks like Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore, is newsworthy for more than just her decision to file charges against police officers for the death of Freddie Gray. According to a new study, women of color make up just 1% of all elected prosecutors in the U.S.

The study, which surveyed prosecutors in late 2014, found that 79% of the more than 2,400 prosecutors in the country are white men. Just 16% are white women, 4% are men of color and 1% are women of color. For comparison: White men comprise 31% of the U.S. population.

The data provides “very harsh wakeup call,” said Donna Hall, president and CEO of the nonprofit Women Donors Network, which conducted the study. “Nationwide, the prosecutors we elect are overwhelmingly white and male—and that matters. Those prosecutors direct and manage a system that’s highly skewed and therefore unable to reflect and respect our diverse society.”

Three-fifths of states had elected no African American prosecutors, while 14 states had exclusively white elected prosecutors, including Colorado,Tennessee and Connecticut.

Mississippi and Virginia account for more than half of all black prosecutors nationwide, while Maine is the only state where women make up 50% of the elected prosecutors. The organization has reported a similar imbalance in other elected positions, finding that women make up 29% of elected officials and people of color just 11%.

Prosecutors have incredible discretionary power—they decide whether cases are pursued or dropped, and how severe the charges may be. In a conference call about the report, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners, said prosecutors have little accountability. Therefore, deciding who holds on the position is crucial, he says.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that a woman or person of color will be a fairer prosecutor. However, Brenda Carter, campaign director of the Women’s Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign, says it’s a “red flag” if the “the life experiences of the majority of the population are really excluded from there incredibly powerful positions.”

“There are certain kinds of life experiences that one has when one is a woman, or one is a person of color or a woman of color that is simply not the same if you are a white person of a man,” she said.

The study found that 85% of elected prosecutors run unopposed. And if prosecutors decide not to seek reelection, they often hand pick their successors.

That’s one place where prosecutors could make an effort to diversify the position, says Stevenson, adding that he has not yet seen that occur.

“I think you could immediately see tremendous progress in these numbers if a lot of longstanding prosecutors made diversity a priority,” Stevenson said. “If they identify people of color or women as their successors, in most jurisdictions, that would happen and there would not be opposition to that process.”



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