by Christina Couch
Originally published: May 18, 2016
Before they see a courtroom, prosecutors make enormous decisions about what crimes to charge and how high to set bail. Why do they need to know the race of defendants to do that?
In the United States, there are two systems of justice—one for white people, and one for everyone else. When compared to African- and Hispanic-Americans committing the same crimes, white Americans are less likely to be stopped by the police or arrested in either the adult or juvenile detention systems.
Study after study confirms that bias permeates nearly every level of criminal justice—from arrests to convictions to sentencing—and that includes one group who holds a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to determining the specifics of criminal proceedings. Prosecutors have an absolutely huge amount of discretion in criminal cases, including power to determine whether to charge a defendant with a crime, the length of prison terms, and the specifics of plea deals. That last one is especially crucial considering that the vast majority of defendants—more than 90%—never go to trial, meaning that it’s often up to a single prosecutor to decide how justice plays out.