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Do Prosecutors Treat All Defendants Equally?

Our legal system is predicated on the rule of law -- that our laws apply to everyone, equally, and that everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law. Nowhere is this principle more important and necessary than our criminal justice system.

We expect prosecutors to treat every defendant equally, but new research suggests this might not be the case. Instead, prosecutors often treat minority criminals far more harshly -- especially in terms of crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences.

Dangerous Discretion

The first thing to understand about criminal charges is the concept of prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutors have the freedom to charge the appropriate crime, plea bargain with defendants and their attorneys for guilty pleas to lesser charges, or dismiss charges completely. And this discretion is largely unfettered and is not reviewed by judges or lawmakers.

The majority of prosecutors do not consciously abuse this discretion. But as the Daily Beast points out, the majority of prosecutors don't look like the majority of defendants, and that can lead to disparities in charging, conscious or unconscious.

Dangerous Disparities

According to population, incarceration, and criminal charging statistics:

  • White people are 65% of the overall population, but 95% of prosecutors are white.
  • Black men are 6% of the overall population, but 35% of the prison population are black males.
  • Black men are 65% more likely to be charged with crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
  • Sentences for black men are 9% harsher than white defendants who committed the same crime.

There could be many reasons for these sentencing disparities. The Daily Beast singles out the lack of racial diversity in prosecutors. Many head prosecutors are elected by majority white populations based on "tough on crime" platforms.

Diversifying law school populations, appointing district attorneys, and removing mandatory minimum sentences may help. While most prosecutors may be trying to treat all defendants equally, the unequal impact of charging and sentencing is undeniable and must be eliminated.

If you are being invested or have been charged with a crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.

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