Shared Race/Ethnicities of Prosecutor and Defendant: A Test of Competing Hypotheses Predicting Case Outcomes

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(5) 480 –506
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034221083264
Shared Race/Ethnicities of
Prosecutor and Defendant:
A Test of Competing
Hypotheses Predicting
Case Outcomes
Lin Liu1
Diversifying prosecutors’ offices and hiring more minority prosecutors have been
touted as promising initiatives to address racial disparities in prosecution. However,
two theoretical perspectives—social identity and internalized racism—delineate
contradictory predictions on the punitiveness of minority prosecutors. The social
identity perspective maintains that minority prosecutors are likely to seek better
outcomes for defendants of their own race/ethnicity, whereas internalized racism
proposes that minority prosecutors will be punitive to defendants of their own race/
ethnicity. The present study uses the most recent data from a large urban jurisdiction
to test whether the effect of shared minority identities between prosecutors and
defendants on case outcomes is consistent with the social identity or internalized
racism perspectives. Results suggest that minority prosecutors tend to show leniency
to defendants of their own race/ethnicity; however, they are punitive toward minority
defendants of a different race/ethnicity. Policy implications and directions for future
research are also discussed.
the prosecutor–defendant racial–ethnic dyad, case diversion, case dismissal, charge
1Florida International University, Miami, USA
Corresponding Author:
Lin Liu, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida International
University, Miami, FL 33199, USA.
1083264CJPXXX10.1177/08874034221083264Criminal Justice Policy ReviewLiu
Liu 481
Studies exploring the link between court actors’ characteristics and racial disparity in
judicial processing have primarily focused on judges. Although this focus is under-
standable, it is limited. Losing sight of the role of prosecutors in the judicial process
will substantially limit our understanding of racial disparities in punishment (Rakoff,
2016). Currently, 95% of criminal cases are pled out. Prosecutors decide whether to
dismiss cases, file charges, drop/increase charges, and engage in plea bargaining as
cases move toward trial (Liu et al., 2020; Piehl & Bushway, 2007; Shermer & Johnson,
2010; Ulmer et al., 2007). In plea negotiations, prosecutors have broad discretion over
the type of plea offer to be delivered to defendants (Kutateladze, Andiloro, et al., 2014;
Kutateladze et al., 2020).
Currently, diversifying the demographic pool of police officers, judges, and prose-
cutors has been strongly proposed as a solution to address the persistent racial dispar-
ity in the criminal justice system (Bazelon & Krinsky, 2018; Nichanian, 2020). In
prosecutorial reform, some observers argue that an increased minority presence in the
district attorney’s or state attorney’s office will attenuate racial disparities (Migoya &
Schmelzer, 2020; Wolfe, 2020). This idea is based on the rationale that minority pros-
ecutors may be more sensitive to system-wide racial disparities in sentencing and are
therefore least likely to use racial stereotypes to impute the dangerousness and blame-
worthiness of defendants (King et al., 2010; Walker & Barrow, 1985).
However, some scholars hold reservations about the claimed link between recruit-
ing minority justice actors and equitable treatment of minority citizens (e.g., Brunson
& Gau, 2015). Although studies on disparate patterns of practices across White and
minority prosecutors are rather sparse, past policing studies show that compared with
White officers, minority officers tend to be harsher on minority citizens (Brown &
Frank, 2007; Sun & Payne, 2004; Weitzer, 2000).
To test the link between diversifying prosecutors’ offices and alleviation of racial
disparities, scientific studies on a prosecutor’s race/ethnicity vis-à-vis case outcomes
are sorely needed. Compared with a massive body of studies on judges’ decision-
making, limited research attention has been devoted to examining prosecutors’ charac-
teristics, especially their racial identities and decision-making. There has been a
scarcity of data linking prosecutorial attributes and case outcomes, which has posed a
challenge for researchers (B. D. Johnson et al., 2014). The present study uses the most
recent data from a large urban prosecutorial office to explore how minority race/ethnic
identities of prosecutors and defendants are associated with three case outcomes,
namely, prosecutorial dismissal, case diversion, and charge reduction, which are
highly consequential and fully controlled by prosecutors.
In addition to reviewing the aforementioned understudied but important questions
in criminal punishment, the present study also contributes to the literature theoreti-
cally. Prior tests exploring how judges’ and police officers’ race/ethnicity affect their
decision-making are primarily empirical and atheoretical. Limited attention has been
given to applying a theoretical framework to explain this aspect of criminal justice
practice. This study tests the applicability of two theoretical perspectives in

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