What This Project is About

This report is a result of a collaborative effort between Solicitor Wilson and her team, The Justice Innovation Lab, and Prosecutor Performance Indicators project. This report, the first in a series, focuses on the outcomes of prosecutorial decision making for felony and misdemeanor offenses in the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Charleston County, South Carolina. It assesses the existence and extent of racial and ethnic disparities across the following four decision points: (1) Complete case dismissals; (2) Plea negotiations; (3) Changes in charges from referral to disposition; and (4) Sentencing.

Improving prosecutorial performance and decision making is impossible without data. Data takes center stage in the partnership, because it tells prosecutors what problems are the biggest threats to community well-being, and it points to ways to tackle those problems. Data helps measure the overall impact of prosecutors’ work, and it alerts them that a policy or practice needs to be continued or changed. Most prosecutors’ offices lack the ability to collect, analyze, and apply data to these ends. Many offices do not record the data they need. Others are missing the staff and knowledge necessary to analyze their data. Still other offices—probably most—do not have the ability to use data to guide their decisions and reforms. This project focuses on helping prosecutors overcome these hurdles.

This project was created with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, which seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

What Data Are Used

This analysis is limited to Black and white men in Charleston because of the demographics of Charleston and who is being arrested. According to the 2015-2019 Census American Community Survey (ACS) Black and white residents made up over 90% of Charleston’s 400,000+ total population. Hispanic and Latino residents are the next largest group at about 5% of the population. Furthermore, 98% of cases in Charleston involved a Black or white person arrested for a crime, 81% involved a Black or white man. Given the size of the Black and white population and demographics of who is being arrested, this report focuses on those communities since the statistical methods used are most sound when applied to such large groups.

Prosecution data for this report are from the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office’s case management system. Analyses of case outcomes across offense types rely on data for over 24,000 warrants referred to the Ninth Circuit between January 2015 and February 2020.

Cases stemming from arrests and those disposed of after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 are excluded, as policy changes by government agencies including the suspension of court hearings may have significantly changed trends in prosecution. Cases are limited to arrests in Charleston County for Black and white males. For the purposes of this report, the terms male and female were used according to the specifications within the data and do not necessarily correspond with an individual’s gender identity. Though the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office covers both Berkeley and Charleston Counties, cases are limited in this initial analysis to Charleston County to ensure that all data analyzed were entered consistently. We intend to extend the analysis to Berkeley County in future reports. Only Black and white males arrested in Charleston County are considered for statistical purposes.

For this report, cases and charges for a single individual are grouped together where they share an arrest date or are disposed of within 5 days of one another. This grouping is a result of conversations with solicitors that explained that such cases and charges are prosecuted as a whole. Cases at each stage of the prosecution process (Arrest, Indictment, Disposition) are tracked by the most serious charge at that stage. Sentences for the vast majority of the charges in the Ninth circuit are served concurrently (as opposed to consecutively). This allows us to focus on the “top charge” at each stage of the process. The "top charge" is the most severe charge in a case in terms of potential incarceration time (i.e., exposure), as determined by averaging the potential incarceration time for all individuals in our sample found guilty of that charge.

What Factors are Accounted for When Assessing These Decision Points

The results in the report represent differences between “similarly situated” Black and white males in Charleston. We define “similarly situated” to mean people facing a criminal charge with similar age, median household income by zip code, in-state residential status, number of previous convictions, crime severity at arrest (explained later), and number of counts in a case. Individuals are also grouped for comparison based on if they were assigned to the same prosecutor and arrested by the same police department.

Despite grouping individuals along these variables, it is worth noting that Black and white men have very different lived experiences as demonstrated by differences across several dimensions. This is illustrated by the table provided in the technical appendix which shows that Black males are younger, come from poorer neighborhoods, are more likely to live in state, have longer criminal histories, have more charges per case, and are charged with crimes that carry longer potential sentences. Therefore, we also present the difference in raw numbers between Black and white men. Any disparity that is present in the raw numbers and not present in the predicted rates of “similarly situated” individuals should be interpreted as being driven by one (or some combination) of the individuals’ characteristics listed above.

For example, while 65% of drug cases involving Black men resulted in a custodial sentence compared to 50% of drug cases involving white men, the difference in the rate for receiving a custodial sentence when comparing similarly situated individuals is small and not statistically significant - 59.5% for Black men compared to 58.6% for white men. While discussing exactly what characteristics are driving this is beyond the scope of this report, we want to make clear that the number and type of charges that drive these disparities in cases could also come from racially biased policing processes. In future work we investigate how policing patterns generate longer criminal histories for Black men which directly impacts downstream outcomes in the criminal justice system.

What Offense Categories are Examined

Results are provided for all offenses together, and then broken down into person, guns, property, and drug offenses separately. Public order offenses, which are the largest but most diverse category, are not analyzed as their own offense type. DUIs and other, similar traffic offenses, are included in the analysis and listed as traffic offenses.

Analytical Approach

For each decision point, we highlight crime types where there are statistically significant differences in outcomes between Black and white men and where there is a noticeable difference in who is affected, even where the difference is not statistically significant. Statistically significant differences means that the difference between outcomes for Black and white men are unlikely to be explained by chance or differences in cases involving Black and white men; rather we suspect these differences are likely explained by the individual’s race.