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Ohio's County Prosecutors All White, Study Finds

The Montgomery County courthouse. A recent study finds all county prosecutors in Ohio are white.
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Flickr/Creative Commons

Prosecutors and grand juries have faced public scrutiny in recent months following some high-profile cases in which white police officers have killed African Americans. A new study reveals a striking lack of diversity among elected district attorneys across the country, including Ohio counties.

The national study by the advocacy group Women Donors Network found 95 percent of the country’s elected prosecutors are white and 80 percent male. Ohio is no different. All of Ohio’s 88 county prosecutors are white, just 12 of those are women.

“Something is definitely askew when you look at these figures and you think about the diversity of our state’s population to not see hardly any diversity in this particular office,” says Jason Reece, associate director at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute, which studies racial and ethnic disparities.

Prosecutors hold a lot of power: they decide whether to bring indictments to a grand jury, whether to charge a case as a felony and what kinds of sentences should be recommended or negotiated.

“I think you have to consider how this relates to things like the incarceration divide that we see in our state today,” Reece says.

Nationally, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate more than five times that of whites. The Women Donors Network study concludes an “overrepresentation” of white male elected prosecutors has created “a structural flaw in the criminal justice system.”

But the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s director John Murphey vehemently disagrees with that assertion.  

“The lurking assumption in all that is that you can be fairly prosecuted only by somebody of your own racial and gender makeup, which I think is absolutely absurd,” Murphey said. “And I think the prosecutors white or black or male or female do an excellent job of basing their cases on the law and on the facts.”

But Reece thinks there are structural issues within the criminal justice system. He says studies have documented implicit bias—or a subconscious bias—among juries.  

“It’s not necessarily that a prosecutor of color is going to do a better job than a white male prosecutor,” Reece said, “but there is tremendous benefit in the diversity of perspective and opinion that come in from having more diversity in that cohort of very powerful individuals.”

Murphey, who was a Franklin County assistant prosecutor in the ‘70s, recalls having black colleagues. He says he’s not entirely sure why more African Americans don’t file and run for the lead office.

“It does take some time and effort and resources to get yourself known in the community to put yourself forth and mount a meaningful, credible political campaign,” Murphey said. “Maybe that’s some concern. I don’t know. Maybe they just have better opportunities with private law firms or other opportunities.”

In Franklin County, there are currently 115 assistant prosecutors. Eighty-nine percent are white.  

Reece suggests a lack of funding and political backing discourages minorities from running for the office.

 

“Particularly when you think about the geography of our state, and the fact that our state’s diversity really is clustered in our major urban areas which are highly-competitive places to run a campaign,” he says.

 

Reece adds there’s another concern, what he calls the “pipeline issue” or the challenge of producing enough minorities for the job.