In a Fresno courtroom filled with lawyers and defendants, prosecutor Monica Diaz stands out.
The 15-year veteran of the Fresno County Superior Court has convicted wife-beaters, career criminals and killers.
But she is distinct for another reason: She is a minority in a profession filled with white people.
According to a study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, whites represent nearly 70% of prosecutors while Latinos represent only 9%. And a majority of prosecutors across California are white men.
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Called “Stuck in the ’70s: The Demographic of California Prosecutors,” the study is the first of its kind for California. The title comes from the fact that the last time California was 70% white was four decades ago.
Under the direction of executive director Debbie Mukamal and co-director David Sklansky, a Stanford law professor, law students collected data from district attorney offices in 52 of California’s 58 counties. (Glenn, Kings, Lassen, Madera, Mendocino and Tulare counties failed or refused to provide data, the study says).
What they found was that whites, who comprise slightly more than 38% of the state’s population, hold nearly 75% of the prosecutors’ jobs. The data also showed that female prosecutors are underrepresented in supervisory roles.
Diaz, 44, has bucked the odds: she is chief prosecutor of a misdemeanor team, supervising 10 deputy district attorneys.
There are close to 3,800 assistant district attorneys and deputy district attorneys in California. While detailed information about race and gender of law enforcement officers has been available for decades — prompting many police departments to diversify their workforces — there has been little or no information about whether prosecutors represent the communities they serve, the study says.
The study says recent news events have renewed long-standing concerns about the treatment of racial minorities.
Though the study is not an indictment against white prosecutors, recent news events have renewed long-standing concerns about the treatment of racial minorities. For example, nationwide protests have followed the failures by prosecutors to secure indictments against white police officers implicated in the deaths of two black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York. The district attorneys in Ferguson and on Staten Island are white men, the study noted. The protests prompted President Barack Obama to say the nation’s legal system has a “long history of discrimination.”
Diversity is important, the study says, because prosecutors are considered the most powerful officials in America’s criminal justice system. They determine who is criminally charged, what charges are filed, what sentence will be sought and what concessions, if any, will be offered in exchange for a guilty plea.
Diversity among the prosecutor ranks is important for another reason: Men and women of color are disproportionately stopped by police, and prosecutors are more likely to charge black defendants than white defendants with criminal offenses, the study says.
In addition, because prosecutors determine which laws will be enforced aggressively — and which will not — they often set the agenda for public debates about how criminal justice is administered in a community, the study says.
“Criminal justice agencies are fairer, inspire more public confidence and are more likely to be seen as legitimate when they reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” the study says. “The presence of minority attorneys in a prosecutor’s office may also make the office more likely to adopt policies and champion initiatives that are responsive to the concerns of minority residents.”
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa A. Smittcamp said she is aware of the lack of minorities within her ranks. The data, which was collected before she took office in January, says 82 of the 104 prosecutors in her office were white.
I do not see color. I base my decisions on merit. I promote people who I know can do the job and do it well
Fresno County DA Lisa Smittcamp
But since taking office, Smittcamp said she has attacked the issue by naming several women to key roles. In addition to promoting Diaz, Smittcamp named Midori Howo chief of the sexual assault unit. Smittcamp also dispatched prosecutors Miiko Anderson and Jennifer Smith to the National Black Prosecutors Association gathering in Washington, D.C., in a move to recruit prosecutors of color.
“There’s a lot of value in having a diverse office,” Smittcamp said, saying she encourages her prosecutors to gather together, talk about a case and share their backgrounds and views.
Yet on the other hand, Smittcamp said, it’s also important to hire and promote the best candidate. “I do not see color. I base my decisions on merit. I promote people who I know can do the job and do it well.”
The study says Smittcamp and other district attorneys throughout California face an uphill mission in diversifying their offices. That’s because minorities are underrepresented in the California legal profession as a whole, and in the ranks of law school graduates.
Anthony Fultz, an assistant district attorney in Tulare County, said the office didn’t provide data for the study because it’s not something the office tracks. He also said it’s illegal to require a potential prosecutor to identify his or her race and ethnicity. In addition, he said, race and ethnicity is difficult to determine because many people are multi-race.
Regardless of the study, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office does reflect the community it serves, Fultz said, noting that the office has prosecutors who are Hispanic, black, Asian and other ethnicities. In addition, of the 64 prosecutors in the office, 34 are women. “I would call that diverse,” he said.
To reflect the community, Fultz said, the office likes to hire prosecutors who were born and raised in Tulare County and went to the Valley’s only law school — the San Joaquin School of Law in Clovis. To help the underserved portion of the community, Fultz said, the office is a partner with the College of Sequoias in a program that steers minorities toward a University of California education and then law school. The District Attorney’s Office then gives these students internships, Fultz said.
“We like to hire local because people who are part of the community know it best,” Fultz said.
Diaz, who is married with two children, is a local product. She is a graduate of Fresno State and the San Joaquin College of Law.
Smittcamp said she promoted Diaz because she is a tough prosecutor who cares about victims and knows the law. Smittcamp said she wants those skills to rub off on the newer prosecutors in the office. “Monica is one of the most ethical, competent and hardworking lawyers in the office,” Smittcamp said. “She puts her heart and soul into her job.”
Diaz did most of her work behind the scenes, working in the domestic violence unit. In 2012, she started prosecuting high-profile cases. She is best known for prosecuting Angel Rodriguez Jr., who was sentenced last year to 55 years to life in prison for fatally shooting Nicholas Flores-Villagran, 26. Diaz told the jury that Flores-Villagran was enjoying a family barbecue when Rodriguez intruded on the gathering and shot the unarmed victim for no reason on Sept. 22, 2012.
Diaz also prosecuted Renard Brooks Jr., a career criminal who kidnapped former Fresno County official Tim Casagrande at gunpoint from his north Fresno home, robbed him and took him on a terrifying ride through Fresno in October 2013. Brooks was sentenced last year to 31 years in prison.
Diaz said she always has been treated well by her colleagues and never has paid attention to whether white prosecutors get better assignments than minority prosecutors. “I can’t say it’s never happened, but I have never seen bias toward me,” she said.
But she agreed with much of the findings in the study.
“Because there are so many nationalities and cultural issues, it helps to have diversity, because it gives you a better understanding of where the victims are coming from,” she said.
Diversity, she said, also gives the office credibility within the community. “It makes sense. You want to see people you can relate to,” she said.