A first stab at understanding the statewide relationship between race and the criminal justice system shows black men and women in Colorado were arrested or issued citations at a disproportionate rate last year, and were more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to receive prison sentences, according to The Denver Post.
Though they represent just 4.2 percent of the state’s population, a Colorado Division of Criminal Justice report found that blacks accounted for 12.4 percent of the arrests and summonses in 2015. The findings also show those accusations were more frequently for serious charges, including assault, aggravated assault, homicide, robbery and weapons-related offenses.
The report also showed that black juveniles were more likely than their counterparts of other races or ethnicities to be sentenced to the state’s youth detention system.
Observers say the review is an important step toward equity in policing, the courtroom and prisons, but caution that a deep analysis of the findings — and possibly more information — is needed to really understand what the data mean.
“We need to drill down a little further and be analytic and strategic about what these statistics are showing us,” said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who sponsored the legislation that required the data to be gathered. “It can show us what legislative action might be necessary, what training might be necessary. I think we just need to study the results and see where that drives the next steps. I think data drives informed decisions.”
The findings stem from the 2015 Community Law Enforcement Action Reporting Act that mandated analysis and reporting of racial data provided by Colorado law enforcement agencies. For the CLEAR Act report, which was released Wednesday night in a 74-page examination, more than 325,000 arrests, summonses, court filings and parole-board decisions were reviewed.
The data release comes at a time when race and its relationship to criminal justice system are under both the national and local spotlight. The Denver Police Department, for example, is working to determine how it will collect racial data about the people officers stop after years of saying the work would be too difficult and expensive to implement.
“None of the data answered questions as to why these disparities occur,” Colorado Department of Public Safety research director Kim English, lead author of the report, said in a written statement. “This study provides data and analysis that can serve as a tool for decision-makers who are continually working to make our state’s criminal justice system work better for the citizens it serves.”
The study is an aggregate of data and does not break down information by city, county or the state’s 22 judicial districts. Officials also cautioned that it does not seek to speculate on why such racial disparities exist. The state’s public safety department says it is responsible only for putting out the data analysis, and doesn’t set or enforce policy.
State officials also warned that because of how Colorado’s court system operates, the report’s race and ethnicity data — particularly for Hispanics and whites, who could be co-classified — for court decisions should be heeded with caution.
Fields said she sponsored the CLEAR Act, in part, because her constituents in the East Colfax Avenue area of Aurora raised concerns about over-policing in their community. She said the data in the report should act as a light for how to move forward and that she hopes everyone — from the state’s top politicians, to law enforcement officers to everyday citizens — closely review the report’s findings.
“I think that we should be approaching the data with a point of understanding and not to dismiss what the data tells us,” she said. “If someone’s already saying, ‘I don’t believe it’ and ‘black people commit more crime,’ then they already have a closed mind-set. We need to look at this data with a fresh set of eyes and dig deep.”
Fields added: “If the data tells us the house is on fire and we say “I don’t think it’s on fire’ and the house is burning down, then what we are going to have is a house that is burned.”
Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado, said the data “unfortunately confirms what many in the community thought and suspected, which is that all aspects of the criminal justice system disproportionately affect African-Americans.”
Maes said she is especially concerned about the “very sobering” data showing the major sentencing discrepancy for blacks in all kinds of cases, from property crime to violent crime.
“It’s amazing to me and it’s very scary (and) sad that while they are sentenced to prison, whites are sentenced to deferred sentences or probation,” she said. “We have such a problem of having sent so many black men to prison in Colorado, and we are continuing to do it.”
She added: “There are two sides to this coin: Who police officers decide to stop and arrest and who district attorneys decide to charge and for what.”
However, Denver police deputy Chief Matt Murray said the statewide data review is too simple to attack a complex issue.
“We’re not saying there’s not an issue and people should not be concerned,” he said. “It’s very simplistic to say police are the only part of this equation. There are a lot of things happening in society that impact this equation. It’s way more complicated than just taking population data and laying over data that has lots of other factors into play and saying, ‘Gee, there is a problem.’ ”
For example, Murray said that in Denver, blacks account for 10 percent of the city’s population but 44 percent of the arrests for being a felon in possession of a handgun. They aren’t being arrested because of their race, he says.
“We need to work together and really work and try to answer some questions that may not fit our narrative,” he said, “and may be uncomfortable.” The state report also found that black men and women were less likely than people of any other race or ethnicity to be released by a parole board.
Along gender lines, women were more likely than men to receive a deferred sentence and less likely to receive a jail term. And the report said women were “much more” likely to be involved in property crimes than in violent crimes or drug offenses.
About 50 percent of the state’s population in 2015 was male, but the report shows men and boys accounted for 70 to 80 percent of arrests in Colorado. In 2015, Colorado law enforcement made or issued more than 200,000 arrests and summonses, of which 8.4 percent were for drug offenses, 11.3 percent were for violent crimes and 15.9 percent were for property offenses.
“I think there are noteworthy, interesting things here, but I don’t think we can draw any conclusions yet,” said George Brauchler, 18th Judicial District attorney. “This is a great starting point for the next set of questions.”
Like Murray, Brauchler said he wants to see data that takes into account more factors other than race, such as socio-economic status. Brauchler said he works hard to ensure there is no real or perceived racial bias in his office and that he is extremely sensitive to community concerns of inequity in the justice system.
“If you just look at these straight numbers, it suggests that our criminal justice system is completely sexist against men,” Brauchler said. “I just don’t think there is enough here to draw any strong conclusions yet.”