Report Shows Influence Of Race Is ‘Minimal’ In State Attorney Melissa Nelson's Office

Sep 10, 2019

State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who represents much of the First Coast, said Tuesday a new report on prosecutorial effectiveness and fairness shows that race and ethnicity were not a significant factor in the cases handled by her office.

“Based on statistical analysis of data for 88,559 cases handled by our office in Clay, Duval, and Nassau Counties in 2017 and 2018, the researchers found that, overall, the influence of race or ethnicity was minimal,” Nelson, the State Attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, wrote in the foreword to the new report out of Florida International University and Loyola University.

Racial and ethnic breakdown in the 4th circuit by number.
Credit Florida International University

For the most part, the report’s findings support that assertion.

Racial and ethnic breakdown in the 4th circuit by percentage.
Credit Florida International University

“Generally speaking, race is not the most influential point or factor in any of the decisions,” said Besiki Kutateladze, an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida International University and one of the study’s authors.  “But one area where race played a relatively bigger role is dismissals, prosecutorial dismissals.”

Post-filing prosecutorial dismissal numbers.
Credit Florida International University and Loyola University

A prosecutorial dismissal is when the prosecutor drops a case after it has already been filed for reasons like insufficient evidence. “Prosecutors were most likely to dismiss the case if the defendant was black or African American,” Kutateladze said.

Prosecutorial dismissal findings from the report.
Credit Florida International University and Loyola University

“It's kind of counterintuitive,” said Brian Davis, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Middle District of Florida. “When you hear about African Americans’ participation in the system, arrest and sentencing, to learn that there was a disproportionate dismissal rate with respect to them was a little surprising.” 

“It could be because of witness and victim participation. And if that's the case, it really does underscore the duality of the African American community’s experience in the criminal justice system,” he said. “On the one hand, we don't want the system to be overrepresented by African Americans, or any minority for that matter. But we don't want crime to go unpunished. Drilling down on that figure, for example, is I think going to be extremely important for us to try to get a better handle on.”

Nelson said that’s exactly what she intends to do.

“There were definitely findings in this work that have allowed us to immediately take some actions to do just that and improve,” she said.

The data from this study will be used to develop what she’s calling prosecutorial performance indicators, or PPIs. The goal is to standardize the evaluation process and allow some measure of comparison across the State Attorney’s office.

Once those indicators are developed, Nelson hopes to start measuring and reporting the results on a regular basis.

“It's important for us to be transparent,” she said. “It's also important for us to know this information internally, so we can just do our jobs as effectively as possible and use our resources as wisely as possible.”

Kutateladze, Davis, and Nelson all said this is part of a new trend: state prosecutors are starting to use data to inform policy decisions.

“In every industry in the private sector, data is used and studied to inform decision making from A to Z. And it's not new to the legal system. Private firms use metrics. Healthcare uses metrics,” Nelson said. “If we are seeking, as an office, to be more effective at our job, and pursue public safety more effectively, and be smarter with the resources that we have, we have no choice but to rely on data to inform our policy creation and change.”

“I'm excited about the fact that prosecutors and justice system players are starting to look to data to answer questions where we know the system is skewed in ways that we’re all bothered by,” said Davis.

Outside of this report on race and ethnicity, Nelson said her office is studying geography and socio-economic factors as well.

It’s worth noting that this study only dealt with cases that went before the State Attorney’s Office. It did not examine arrests, for example. 

As Nelson put it, her office is just one actor in a much larger system.

“The criminal justice system is huge and unwieldy,” she said. “This information, it allows us to improve our work and drill down where there may be issues and improve what we can.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.