Monroe County prosecutor asks for analysis of possible racial justice disparities in own office

A study of possible racial justice disparities in Monroe County with “special attention given to racial disparities within the prosecutor’s office” was pitched to county councilors on Tuesday, by county prosecutor Erika Oliphant.

Screen shot of Monroe County’s county council meeting on Jan. 26, 2021.

At its work session on Tuesday, Monroe County’s councilors were presented with a request from Oliphant for funding.

On Tuesday, county councilors did not take a vote on the requested $68,000 appropriation, which would cover the contract with Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute Center for Health and Justice Research.

That approval could come at the county council’s next regular meeting, which is set for Feb. 9.

Responding to a question from councilor Kate Wiltz, Oliphant said the study of decision making in her office is separate from a comprehensive criminal justice system review that the county commissioned. Wiltz described the final report from the comprehensive review as expected “at some point, hopefully, in the very near future.”

Oliphant described the comprehensive review as having “a very different purpose and scope” from the study of her office. According to Oliphant, the question to be answered by the comprehensive review is: “How we can impact the jail population—who’s being held in jail for how long?” She added another question, “And how can we improve court processes to get those folks out of jail?”

The study that Oliphant now wants the county council to consider is focused “specifically on prosecutorial decision making,” she said. The study of her office won’t focus just on the jail population, but will include everyone impacted by prosecutorial decision making, even those people who might not see a day in jail, she said.

The researcher who would be conducting the study is Eric Grommon, an applied criminologist in the O’Neill School at IUPUI.

The decision to ask an outside reacher to extract the data, instead of trying to do it in-house, was based on the idea that her office would get a more trustworthy product using that approach, Oliphant said.

Part of the project involves evaluating the capabilities and gaps of the prosecutor’s current data system. Grommon is supposed to analyze and summarize a cross‐section of at least six months of historical individual‐level justice and case management system data.

Asked by councillor Geoff McKim how the independence of his research would be assured, Grommon said, “I am affiliated with [Indiana University]. So that means I have to abide by ethical principles.” He added that his research would require Institutional Review Board approvals—which would protect both him and the prosecutor’s office, Grommon said.

Grommon stressed that as an applied criminologist, he works with practitioners on all of his projects. Some of the information that he collects is “not exactly fun information to hear,” he said. He added, “But learning from the data that’s presented and trying to make changes—I think that’s why we’re all getting involved in this project together, to try to improve our justice system.”

Weighing in during public commentary at the end of the council’s work session was Guy Loftman, a local attorney who has worked with Bloomington resident Ruth Aydt to study racial disparity in the criminal justice system in Monroe County.

In the 20 years he’s studied the issue, Loftman said, “The bottom line is… there is routinely, on every level, a disparity of about four times as many Blacks being prosecuted.” If Grommon’s study does not show the same thing, Loftman said, “I would be so astounded and so happy.”

Loftman said that he’d had consistent cooperation from the prosecutor’s office in gathering data. What he’s asked for, Loftman said, is that analysis of racial disparities shouldn’t be a job for volunteers from the NAACP and the Unitarian Universalist Church. “It should be institutionalized,” Loftman said. He added, “You have no idea how happy it makes me that Erika [Oliphant] has moved forward on this.”

Based on the kind of praise they gave Oliphant’s proposal on Tuesday, county councilors are likely to approve the appropriation when they’re asked to take a vote.

Councilor Geoff McKim told Oliphant, “I really want to commend you, the prosecutor’s office for this.” He added, “It takes a remarkable amount of political courage to subject your own office and your own decision making to this level of scrutiny on such an important topic for the committee, the community in the world.”

Councilor Peter Iversen said, “This is really exciting. I think this is spot on with where we are as a community.”

Echoing those sentiments was councilor Trent Deckard. He said, “This is not the easy thing to sign up for. But I think it’s part of what the prosecutor is doing—in being not only present in her community that she’s working in, but being present in the community where most of this advocacy is happening.”

Towards the end of the meeting, Iversen also noted that later this week county councilors are supposed to receive anti-racism policy training from BLM-Btown.

Iversen said, “We need to start with ourselves. And we we are making sure that our biases are being investigated and that we can suss out any type of racism or discrimination that’s happening—because you know, institutional racism does not just exist in the prosecutor’s office. It also exists in other areas as well.”