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Report Highlights Lack Of Racial Diversity Among U.S. Prosecutors

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white. Seventy-nine percent are white men. Those are the findings of a report out today by the San Francisco-based advocacy group Women Donors Network. It looked at nearly 2,500 elected prosecutors from state attorneys general down to city and county prosecutors. And the findings are no surprise to Bryan Stevenson. He founded an organization that provides legal representation to low-income defendants, and he joins us from the studios of Troy University Public Radio in Montgomery, Ala. Thanks for being here.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Glad to be with you.

MCEVERS: The racial makeup of police departments have come under a lot of scrutiny lately, but prosecutors haven't gotten that same level of attention. Why do you think there are so few nonwhite elected prosecutors in this country?

STEVENSON: Well, we really haven't talked about this problem. It's one of the biggest problems we have in the system of justice that continues to create a lot of doubt and skepticism in communities of color. We have paid attention to policing. We have paid some attention to even judges, but we haven't paid much attention to prosecutors. And that role is a role that has largely been occupied by white men and that has changed almost not at all in the last 30 years.

We have elected prosecutors, but in 85 percent of these elections, there's no opposition. So the incumbent prosecutors pick their successors, and they tend to pick people who are just like them. And it's quite consequential. The prison population has gone from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million. People of color are disproportionately charged, arrested and sentenced. And there are great questions about the integrity and fairness of our criminal justice system when it comes to how we deal with people of color and women.

MCEVERS: And what about within the black community, though? I mean, is there something that's stopping people from wanting to become prosecutors? Is there a stigma against being a prosecutor?

STEVENSON: Well, I actually have had lots of students and others enter the prosecution profession. They say I want to change things from the inside. And what they typically report is that the culture of many of these offices is so hostile to being more responsive to the needs of poor people and people of color that they can't make the change that they seek. Now, you had similar complaints about policing 20, 30 years ago. But we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of African-American and Latino police chiefs across the country. The blue cultures is an intense culture, but I think it has shifted in some ways as a result of diversity. That's not as true for prosecutors. And I do think there is an awareness that you're not going to be able to do some of the things you'd like to do to respond to the concerns of people of color when you join these offices that have never had any leadership of color.

MCEVERS: You mentioned women. I mean, today's report also shows that there are not that many elected women prosecutors either. I mean, is that a concern, and if so, why?

STEVENSON: Oh, it absolutely is. I mean, in the last 20 years, the percentage of women going to jails and prisons has increased 640 percent. And most of these women had been convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes where you have the greatest discretion for prosecutors. They can decide whether to keep you out of jail or prison, send you to a program, send you to probation. And they're exercising that discretion increasingly in harsh and punitive ways toward women, particularly poor women and women with drug histories. There is data that suggests that about two-thirds of the women going to jails and prisons are single parents with minor children. And so not only has it been consequential for women, but for the thousands of children that get displaced and marginalized as a result of this use of discretion to put more women in jails and prisons. I think it's very, very serious.

MCEVERS: The report is specifically examining elected prosecutors. And you know - and so if voters are choosing these prosecutors, I mean, then how do you change the demographics?

STEVENSON: Yeah. I don't think that we're actually exercising much of a choice because, as indicated, most of these elections don't come with competition. There's no one running against them. I think that we can do some things to turn this around. I think, first of all, district attorneys in position today have the opportunity to begin prioritizing diversity and identifying people within their offices who are women and people of color to succeed them. The other thing I think we need to talk about is whether we should be retreating from the election system and thinking more about an appointment process that reflects the complexity of these communities. If we're not going to see internal improvements, we're going to have to impose some of those improvements externally.

MCEVERS: Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Thank you so much for joining us.

STEVENSON: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.