Elected prosecutors have historically and overwhelmingly been White (95 percent) and male (80 percent). They still are, but since 2015, women of color have been chipping away at this hierarchy, with nearly 50 percent more of them stepping into prosecutorial positions in just five years, according to a new study from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, published on Thursday (October 24).

The new report, titled “Tipping The Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys’ Club of Elected Prosecutors,” updates the Campaign’s previous research on the race and gender of elected prosecutors, and maintains the country’s only comprehensive database that records the race and gender of candidates and elected officials.

“In a criminal justice system widely recognized for racial bias and inequity, elected prosecutors are still 95 percent White, and nearly three-quarters White men,” Reflective Democracy Campaign director Brenda Choresi Carter said in an emailed statement. “Challenges to incumbent prosecutors are rare—80 percent run unopposed—but when there is competition, change happens. When women of all races and men of color compete for prosecutor seats, they win at higher rates than White men.”

But the report also shows that a lot more needs to happen to balance the scales between who is elected and the communities they represent. People of color in California, for example, make up 63 percent of the population, but only 10 percent of elected prosecutors. And Nevada is evenly split between White people and people of color, but 94 percent of prosecutors are White.

“This research shows clearly that those who are most vulnerable to prosecutorial bias and misconduct are also the most under-represented in prosecutors’ offices,” said Reflective Democracy Campaign criminal justice fellow Premal Dharia, who is also a former public defender. “We cannot expect the policy changes we need to address race and gender bias in the criminal system to come from those who guard the White male status quo. Change will come from those whose lived experience challenges that status quo.”

Additional key findings from the study:

  • Prosecutors run unopposed 80 percent of the time, but when they’re challenged, voters tend to reject White males.

  • Women of all races and men of color are more likely to win than White men. In 2018, White men made up 69 percent of candidates, but only 59 percent of winners. In contrast, women and people of color made up 31 percent of candidates, but 41 percent of winners.

  • Women of color have significantly increased their share of offices in just four years. This increase was offset by a decrease in prosecutors who are men of color. Since 2015, the percentage of men of color dropped from 4 percent to 3 percent. But when men of color challenge incumbents, they win at a higher rate than White men. 

Overall, the report shows that things are trending away from White men holding prosecutor positions indefinitely. While incumbent prosecutors are more than 75 percent White men, “their challengers were 28 percent women of all races and nearly 8 percent men of color” which makes things look “a lot less like the typical old boys’ club,” noted the report.

To see the complete study, click here