The disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in the criminal justice system is a persistent national concern. National estimates suggest racial and ethnic disparities particularly among black and Hispanic residents may exist at multiple stages of the criminal justice system, including the various dimensions of police contact, case processing, and sentencing. Researchers have speculated about the mechanisms behind these disparities, some of which include economic disadvantage, criminal behavior, organizational practices, cultural misunderstandings, legal guidelines, and racial bias.
In response to this national concern, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, the Johnson County Attorney, and the Crime and Justice Policy Research Program are motivated to conduct an evaluation of racial and ethnic disparities in case processing and sentencing in Johnson County. Racial disparities may exist at multiple points throughout case processing and sentencing. Decision-agents, such as prosecutors and judges, must determine whether a case is accepted for prosecution, whether a pretrial detention is necessary, whether a case is dismissed, whether a plea should be offered, and which type and how severe of sentence is appropriate. While these decisions can be shaped by procedural guidelines (e.g. mandatory minimums), there are also moments of considerable discretion. Racial disparities may be particularly likely during these moments of discretion.
The overall purpose of the proposed evaluation is to provide an empirical estimate of the degree of racial disparities across multiple stages of Johnson County’s case processing and sentencing, including case filings, pretrial detentions, case dismissals, plea offers, and incarceration. To do so, researchers from the Crime and Justice Research Policy Program are currently working closely with the County Attorney’s office to compile 2015 and 2016 case data currently filed by the County Attorney’s office. Once data collection is complete, researchers will examine felony, aggravated misdemeanor, and serious misdemeanor cases, and present an initial assessment of disparities in Johnson County’s case processing and sentencing to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.