White men continue to dominate the elected prosecutor positions that play a key role in driving a criminal justice system that disproportionally impacts people of color, according to a new report.
The report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, titled “Tipping The Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys’ Club of Elected Prosecutors,” finds that the racial makeup of elected prosecutors remains stagnant: 95% of elected prosecutors were white in 2015, and 95% of elected prosecutors are white in 2019. The percentage of elected female prosecutors has increased, but white men still control nearly 75% of elected prosecutor positions in the U.S., compared to 79% in 2015.
Women of color, according to the report, have made some strides: There are nearly 50% more elected prosectors who are women of color in 2019 than there were four years ago.
Competitive elections are driving the shift, according to the report. “When women of all races and men of color compete for prosecutor seats, they win at higher rates than white men,” the report states. “However, competition is rare. We found that 80% of prosecutors run for office unopposed. This stagnant playing field explains a lot about the broken demographics of the system.”
Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said that it’s important for systems to better mirror the makeup of the United States, especially since American life is deeply shaped by race and gender.
“We know that people cannot be expected to put their faith in a political system from which they are systematically excluded,” Carter said.
When the people in leadership positions can see themselves in the people being impacted by their decisions, it changes how decisions are made. Premal Dharia, justice fellow at the Reflective Democracy Campaign
Premal Dharia, a former public defender and current justice fellow at the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said the criminal justice system “desperately” needs the kind of change that a more diverse pool of elected prosecutors could help bring about.
“When there are people in leadership roles who reflect the communities they serve, we see the kind of genuine service that comes from lived experience. When the people in leadership positions can see themselves in the people being impacted by their decisions, it changes how decisions are made,” Dharia said.
Dharia pointed to the election of Kim Foxx in Chicago, Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, Kim Gardner in the city of St. Louis and John Creuzot in Dallas as examples of nonwhite elected prosecutors who have implemented reform.
“There is a lot of work to do to make the changes that we need. But getting the people in place who will both understand and be driven to make those changes and thus to serve their communities in a meaningful way is a necessary step,” Dharia said.
Carter said that, since most elected prosecutors run unopposed, the system remains a “very stagnant and deeply entrenched system.”
“Elected prosecutors in America are really a classic example of an old boys club. It’s a closed system with extremely high barriers to entry, and a gatekeeping system that shuts out competition,” Carter said. “The consequences of this ― a criminal justice system in which tremendous power is concentrated in the hands of one minority group ― are apparent throughout our society.”
But Carter said she can “see the beginnings of change,” as voters ― when they have the chance ― are choosing prosecutors who are not part of that boys club.
“Even in these traditional law-and-order positions, white men have no electability advantage at all,” Carter said.