Vera's recommendations for Wyandotte County Criminal Legal Reform
In 2019, Wyandotte County’s DA, Mark Dupree, asked the Vera Institute of Justice to help the DA’s office address racial inequities in the county’s criminal legal system with a focus on prosecution reform. Vera reports that Dupree was committed to transparency and racial equity “even if the data shows that my office has contributed to the issue.”
Vera used a variety of techniques to evaluate data generated by Wyandotte’s criminal legal system and to document the perspectives of community members who have had contact with the system.
Vera’s reporting highlights clear racial and economic disparities for people entering and passing through Wyandotte’s criminal legal system. Based on their findings, Vera made five recommendations to DA Dupree’s office.
1. Decline cases based on non-public safety stops.
These pretextual stops occur when a person is pulled over for a minor infraction (such as a broken taillight) while law enforcement seeks evidence of a more serious crime. Research on traffic stops in the US consistently demonstrates that Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched despite not being more likely to carry contraband. Such racial profiling creates a clear bias in who enters the criminal justice system. The DA does not directly control policing; nonetheless, they can combat racial profiling by refusing to prosecute cases that result from these biased practices.
2. Lower and limit the use of bail.
A person who is unable to pay bail faces extended time in jail and risks losing their jobs and homes. Moreover, pretrial detention can hamper their ability to work freely with a lawyer to prepare their defense. These pressures can influence defendants to plead guilty to prevent even worse outcomes. Vera found that over 70% of Wyandotte respondents who took a plea deal did so to avoid more jail time.
Vera also found that existing bail practices disproportionately affected low-income neighborhoods. In Wyandotte, these neighborhoods are disproportionately made up of Black and Latinx families. The bail amounts faced by these neighborhoods are excessive considering annual incomes for these households are under $34,818: 59% of bonds were higher than $11,000 and 21% were higher than $34,818.
A person’s freedom should not be determined by their ability to pay. Pretrial detention should be reserved only for defendants who pose a risk to public safety or a flight risk. The DA can directly influence bail practices by requesting that bail be lowered or eliminated for low-level charges and non-violent crimes. Moreover, the DA can request judges to consider a defendant’s ability to pay when setting bail.
3. Exercise restraint in charging.
Participants in Vera’s research suggested that the legal system could better serve their communities if prosecutors had more restraint in charging. Specifically, they felt prosecutors should consider the type of crime, the age of the person charged, and the potential harms of charging a case -- especially when the defendant belongs to a marginalized group.
Prosecutors have absolute discretion over charging. Vera recommends Mark Dupree’s office adopt clear standards for charging that ensure fairness and equity while promoting safe, healthy, and strong communities.
4. Expand diversion programs.
One way prosecutors can exercise restraint is by expanding diversion programs. Diversion programs attempt to minimize people’s contact with the criminal legal system by targeting the underlying problems that lead to criminalized behavior in the first place. These offer an alternative to incarceration by addressing the root causes of community instability such as food and housing insecurity, joblessness, lack of educational resources, and unmet mental health needs.
The Wyandotte DA could expand diversion by using it as the standard response to certain offenses (e.g., in non-violent drug cases) and by developing stronger partnerships with responsive community-based services to address unmet needs. Vera specifically recommends Wyandotte’s DA office develop a juvenile diversion program as a juvenile’s involvement in the criminal legal system has been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of offending and arrest.
5. Increase transparency.
Finally, Vera found that many community members said they became involved in the criminal justice system because they did not know their rights or how the legal system works. Moreover, community members expressed a lack of trust in the system and its protection of people’s rights.
Vera recommends the DA’s office make better efforts to communicate its programs and policies to the community and, specifically, to hire a community liaison officer to manage ongoing communication between the DA’s office and the community. Finally, Vera recommends the DA’s office promote transparency and accountability by publishing office data on a public dashboard.
Prosecutors should be responsive and accountable to the communities they serve. A criminal justice system that punishes poverty, mental illness and substance use does not serve Wyandotte County. A system that disproportionately imprisons Black and Latinx people is unjust.
You can join the work with the ACLU of Kansas to reimagine a criminal legal system that respects the rights of all; where freedom doesn’t depend on wealth, fewer people are incarcerated, and taxes are wisely invested in evidence-based solutions.