PPI 4.6 | Data Story: Treating Serious Crime The Same Across Neighborhoods
Publication date: 2/9/2022
- Individuals should receive equal treatment under the law, regardless of financial or social resources available to them.
- Zip codes can serve as reference points for data related to income and resources available to a person that becomes involved in the criminal justice system.
- There are no substantive disparities in felony case rejections and dismissals at MCDA when comparing defendants from high poverty and low poverty zip codes in Multnomah County.
Equality Across Neighborhoods
Imagine three different neighborhoods in our county:
- A rural neighborhood with significant agriculture
- A high income neighborhood, populated with large single family homes
- A working class neighborhood with pockets of extreme poverty.
Now take three individuals, one from each of these neighborhoods, that are arrested for the same crime. We can use major check fraud for over $1000 dollars as an example. This is a crime that would normally be referred to the District Attorney’s Office as a Class C Felony, meaning a defendant could face prison in the worst case scenario.
In Multnomah County, the data tells us that each of these individuals is about as likely to have the charges rejected at issuance by the District Attorney’s office—meaning no charges will be issued at all. Additionally, once charges are issued and filed with the court, the data also indicates that all three individuals’ cases are about as likely to be dismissed, regardless of where the person lives.
Assuming the zip code in which a person lives is a good proxy for economic and financial resources, people, on average, are treated similarly when it comes to case rejections and dismissals. Let’s look into this further.
Figure 1 displays the percent of families/households living below the poverty line for each of the 33 zip codes in Multnomah County. This is provided as context because the graphs which follow address whether case rejections and dismissals are occurring with the same frequency based on the zip code in which defendants reside. The area where a potential defendant lives often correlates to the resources available to them when facing criminal prosecution. Zip codes can serve as reference points for data related to income and resources available to a person that becomes involved in the criminal justice system.
While not shown here, PPI 4.6 displays the proportion of case referrals from police to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office (MCDA) by the arrestee’s zip code. Although prosecutors do not control which cases they receive or the neighborhoods the arrestee lives in, it is important for MCDA to monitor trends in this area, especially since the proportion of felony cases coming from the highest poverty zip codes is noticeably higher than the proportion of felony cases coming from the lowest poverty zip codes.
When a case is referred to MCDA for prosecution (typically by the police), some cases are rejected for a number of different reasons (lack of victim participation, follow-up needed insufficient evidence, etc.). Figure 2 displays trend lines for the percent of felony cases rejected for prosecution by month from the start of 2018 through November 2021 among defendants residing in the highest and lowest poverty zip codes.
Because zip code data is not obtained for all defendants (38% of cases, many of which tend to be homeless or transient individuals), a third trend line (in red) is also displayed in Figure 2 for felony cases rejected among such defendants
What does the data tell us?
The percentage of felony cases rejected over time is very similar among defendants residing in the highest poverty zip codes relative to those in the lowest poverty zip codes, averaging approximately 35% across the reporting period. Among defendants for which no zip code information was available, case rejection rates were slightly higher during the reporting period but have more recently become aligned with defendants residing in high and low poverty zip codes.
Once felony cases are issued, some are dismissed and do not result in a trial or guilty plea. Examples of dismissal reasons include legal impediments, lack of victim participation, civil compromises and dismissals pursuant to plea negotiations. Figure 3 displays trend lines for the percent of felony cases that were dismissed after issuance by month from the start of 2018 through November 2021 for defendants residing in the highest and lowest poverty zip codes. A third trend line again represents felony case dismissals for defendants with no available zip code information.
What does the data tell us?
The percentage of felony cases dismissed after issuance over time is very similar among defendants residing in the highest poverty zip codes relative to those in the lowest poverty zip codes and missing zip codes. Among defendants for which no address information was available, case dismissal rates are very similar. Finally, there was a decrease in case dismissals across all groups as a result of pandemic restrictions and partial court closures.