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Action urged on racial inequities identified in Boulder County criminal courts study

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Action urged on racial inequities identified in Boulder County criminal courts study

Aug 01, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Zoe Schacht
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Action urged on racial inequities identified in Boulder County criminal courts study
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A view of the Boulder County Courthouse on the Pearl Street Mall in downtown Boulder on Aug. 14, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

A study of the Boulder County district attorney’s office revealed disproportionate charges, convictions and sentencing for Black, Hispanic and unhoused people. The study, done by the Vera Institute, examined criminal cases prosecuted by the district attorney’s office between 2013 and 2019. 

Activists in Boulder County welcomed the study but want action to follow. Some have criticized the district attorney’s office for not holding itself accountable for the findings. 

In 2019, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty worked to find an outside organization that would conduct a review of the county’s data. The Vera Institute selected the Boulder County district attorney’s office for a “deep dive analysis.” The Vera Institute is a New York-based organization that advocates for criminal justice reforms. 

Dougherty was appointed to office in March 2018. From the start of his tenure, he says he identified working on inequities in the Boulder County courts as a key priority. Dougherty says his staff has worked diligently to do “challenging” but “important” work. 

“From the very beginning, I committed to making those findings public and to continue to work to address the inequities that were identified through that analysis,” he said. 

Annett James, president of the Boulder branch of the NAACP, said the data transforms belief into fact — now, there is evidence that there are disparities in the court system. James fears that people believe Boulder is exempt from inequities that affect the rest of the country, but she argues Boulder is worse. 

Ryan Howard, a member of SAFE, an abolitionist advocacy group that focuses on unhoused people, said Boulder is a “deeply racist” place. He said the disparities found in the Vera report are the result of internal prejudices among prosecutors. 

“Anyone who’s gone to the courthouse and watched court proceedings would know that’s probably the most diverse room you’re going to see in Boulder County in terms of race,” Howard said. 

Anyone who’s gone to the courthouse and watched court proceedings would know that’s probably the most diverse room you're going to see in Boulder County in terms of race.

– Ryan Howard, of SAFE

The study found that in comparison to white people, Hispanic people have a higher incarceration rate in Boulder County. Nationally, Hispanic people are sent to prison at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration of white people. In Colorado, the figure is 2.2 and in Boulder County it’s 2.7. The study found that if Boulder County were a state, it would rank fourth in incarceration disparities between Hispanic and white people. 

Between 2018 and 2019, Hispanic people made up 13% of the county’s population but 25% of criminal defendants. 

Black youth and adults have a case filing rate that is four to five times that of white people. Both Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately sentenced to prison. 

“To me, that’s a sign that this criminal justice system in Boulder has a particularly acute problem as compared to other places,” said Dan Williams, a Boulder attorney. 

Unhoused people made up 10% of felony cases brought to the Boulder district attorney’s office. Most of the cases were for felony drug use. Darren O’Conner, criminal justice committee chair for the Boulder County NAACP, said people with homes have the privilege of hiding felony drug use, but there is no privacy when someone is outside. 

Call to decline some cases

The Vera Institute study is not the first instance of Boulder County using outside organizations to address inequities. James said that Boulder law enforcement officials have often maintained the status quo after receiving previous recommendations. She wants better communication from the county after her suggestions have been disregarded in the past. 

The Boulder County district attorney’s office has a diversion program that has been successful in preventing the incarceration of youth. The office screens every juvenile case that comes in but not every adult case, Dougherty said. After receiving positive feedback from the Vera Institute regarding the juvenile diversion, Dougherty said his office will begin screening every adult case for diversion. 

Williams thinks the diversion program is not enough, but he said he sees how it can be helpful in some cases. But, to participate in the program, defendants must admit to committing a crime. Williams said that some cases should not be brought at all, and instead of diverting them, they should be declined. Declining those cases would hold Boulder police accountable for inequities, he said. 

A declination policy modeled after a program in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, was one of the Vera Institute’s recommendations for Boulder County. The Suffolk County district attorney’s office declines to file some misdemeanor cases that classify as poverty-driven crimes. 

Dougherty said that the Vera Institute limited its data collection to felonies, but Dougherty plans to continue examining data from 2020 through 2022 with the addition of misdemeanors and traffic cases. He also would like the Colorado General Assembly to make legislative changes so there is consistency across the state that will outlive his time as district attorney. 

James would like to see Dougherty prioritize work within Boulder County over the state. 

“He’s elected by this community, and we are all working toward legislation, but in the meantime, be the forerunner,” James said. “It’s easy to enforce something once you can say it’s law; it’s brave to enact something before it becomes a law when you know it’s right.”