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It should come as no surprise that there are racial disparities in the Boulder County judicial system. Not because Boulder is an inequitable place — though some certainly argue that it is — but because America’s long and troubled history with implementing justice has left almost every jurisdiction in the country with glaring racial and socioeconomic disparities.

It was only two years ago that the epidemic of police violence reached something of a breaking point with the 2020 murder of George Floyd. In the wake of worldwide protests, a grassroots movement sprung up to defund police departments across the country. It was a controversial stance, but one that was rooted in the fact that people of color and vulnerable populations wanted to once again feel safe in their communities.

Some of that energy and rhetoric has since waned, but our justice systems locally and nationally remain in need of reimagining. A recently released study from the Vera Institute of Justice that examined some 60,000 criminal cases prosecuted by the Boulder County district attorney is a stark reminder of all the work yet to be done.

According to the study, Black people made up about 1% of Boulder County’s population in 2018 and 2019 but accounted for 5% of criminal defendants, while Hispanic people made up about 13% of the county’s population but 25% of criminal defendants.

When it came to convictions, the disparities grew even worse: In 2018 and 2019, 34% of people in Boulder County sentenced to prison were Hispanic and 7% were Black. To make that clear, Hispanic people make up just 13% of the county’s population, but account for more than a third of those sent to prison. Black men and women make up just 1% of the population, while accounting for 7% of those sent to prison.

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty is quick to recognize the pain laid bare in the racial disparities. But he also noted that some of the statistics are the result of individuals with previous criminal histories, especially considering the data tracked only felony cases and not misdemeanors or traffic offenses.

Still, it is hard to ignore the jarring discrepancy between the percentages of people of color who are charged and who are found guilty. The justice system in Boulder County, it seems, is not blind. In fact, it sees in color.

The study also found that some of the most vulnerable in our community also suffered unduly. Despite only about 0.5% of Boulder County’s population being homeless, 10% of felony cases between 2018 and 2019 were brought against people experiencing homelessness.

The ray of hope in the study — however dim it may be — is that the DA’s office sought out this report. The county was one of three around the country selected to be a part of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Reshaping Prosecution program.

“Our goal was to have an independent review identifying where the disparities exist and to what extent so we can target them,” Dougherty recently told the Camera. “We chose to do this because it was the right thing to do.”

And it’s true. It was the right thing to do.

But there is a fine line to walk here. It is important to understand how troubling the report’s findings are. Because we are so constantly confronted with the injustice of our “justice” system — through the endless maelstrom of news and social media — it is easy to look at the statistics published in this report and forget that each and every number is associated with a life and each life has a constellation of interlinking lives blossoming out into our community. These statistics are not just numbers; they are people — and an injustice to them is a threat to justice to us all.

So, without forgetting how troubling the findings are, it is important to acknowledge the progress they represent. Dougherty and the district attorney’s office are making what appears to be a good-faith effort to address the disparities currently delegitimizing our “justice” system.

“We recognize that because of systemic racism and the history in our country, racial disparities exist within the criminal justice system, and I think that’s probably true in most if not all jurisdictions in the U.S.,” Dougherty said. “Rather than just accept that though, our office wanted to identify where those racial inequities flow from and what we could do to address them.”

Now, though, the true test looms. Dougherty and his attorneys have identified the inequities and they must prove that they are going to do what they can to address them.

An overarching goal for Dougherty is to restore trust. “Our top priority is community safety,” he said. “But that commitment to community safety also requires us to have the trust of the community members we serve. And we have seen over the last couple of years, a lack of trust damages the justice system.”

In the more immediate future, the study helped Dougherty recognize the success that a diversion screening group was having at reducing racial disparities for juvenile cases, and that something similar could help screen adults for diversion options as well.

These are good goals and promising ideas that now must be backed up.

But the work to be done does not fall solely onto Dougherty and the DA’s office or even on the police department. Our community must also take responsibility for these findings. Implicit biases are not born in courtrooms or police departments — though they can certainly flourish there. Implicit biases are born and nurtured in our society. Systemic problems take systemic solutions. Dougherty and the DA’s office have set about reimagining their work. What else needs to be reimagined to reach the equity our neighbors deserve?

— Gary Garrison for the Editorial Board

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