Sunday Commentary: Would Kirk-Coehlo Have Received Prison Time if She Were Black?

Our discussion of the Lauren Kirk-Coehlo matter brought up an interesting issue that has generated some considerable discussion – the idea that Ms. Kirk-Coehlo’s race and privileged background contributed to the probation sentence rather than a prison sentence.

As Kate Mellon-Anibaba put it, “What if she had been black?  What if she had been Muslim and done this to a church?”

She said if Kirk-Coehlo had been Muslim and had done this to a church, “there would have been significant jail time and it would have gone differently.”  She concluded, “I think she is hiding behind a privileged white mask.”

Mayor Robb Davis reiterated the point that, if it had been a person of color, “if it was a Muslim doing this to a church, I have no doubt that the outcome would have been different.

“The brokenness of our punitive system was fully on display in the way this was handled,” the mayor said.  “Our criminal justice system is broken and people are afforded rights and privileges based on not just race, class…people who have few means are not afforded the same privilege as those who have more.”

While this is a controversial subject, I tend to agree with the mayor and Ms. Mellon-Anibaba – I think race does play a role in the decision to sentence the defendant to probation rather than prison.  I think it works in some subtle ways, as I will explain shortly.

As I said on the air however – and it is a point that Robb Davis made as well – I don’t think the fact that a person of color would have received a prison sentence here means that we should give Ms. Kirk-Coehlo one.

As Robb Davis put it, “To me, just because our system is unjust does that mean that injustice should be extended?

Research on racial disparities in sentencing is complicated by a number of intervening variables.

For instance, research by the Quattrone Center (which we reported on this week) at the University of Pennsylvania  in collaboration with the San Francisco Public Defender found that defendants of color are convicted of more serious crimes than white defendants, and that includes 60 percent more felonies and 28 percent longer sentences.

The study found that the majority of these disparities “seem to be generated by two factors that pre-date the case adjudication process”:

  • People of color receive more serious charges from police at the initial booking stage; and
  • People of color have pre-existing criminal histories that exacerbate their treatment for subsequent charged offenses.

Pre-existing criminal histories are a key variable because a first-time offender is going to receive far less of a punishment than a person with a lengthy criminal history.

But, as the study points out, that is not the end of story.

The study found, “Decisions made by the booking officer, and prior contact with the criminal justice system, create substantial racial disparities in how serious their case becomes after booking, as well as how little of these serious charges are reduced over the course of their case.”

Moreover, “The influence of these booking decisions is actually larger than our estimates imply, as booking decisions today become criminal history tomorrow, and a defendant’s criminal history was the second most important factor in, for example, determining time spent in custody during the adjudication process.”

However, recent research shows that these sentencing disparities exist even controlling for criminal history.  A study conducted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shows that African American defendants get more time behind bars even when they commit the same crimes under identical circumstances.

The key here is that the Florida Legislature in the 1970s created sentencing policies that assign the defendants points “based on the seriousness of their crime, the circumstances of their arrest and whether or not they have prior convictions” which determine minimum sentencing.

As the paper points out, “The idea is to punish criminals in Pensacola the same as those in Key West — no matter their race, gender or wealth.”

But their study finds: “But the point system has not stopped discrimination.”

Their study finds that sentencing disparities vary by county, but the findings were consistent in that whites received less time even with the same crime and same criminal history.

Among the findings:

  • Florida’s sentencing system is broken. When defendants score the same points in the formula used to set criminal punishments — indicating they should receive equal sentences — blacks spend far longer behind bars. There is no consistency between judges in Tallahassee and those in Sarasota.
  • The war on drugs exacerbates racial disparities. Police target poor black neighborhoods, funneling more minorities into the system. Once in court, judges are tougher on black drug offenders every step of the way. Nearly half the counties in Florida sentence blacks convicted of felony drug possession to more than double the time of whites, even when their backgrounds are the same.

Read the study – it is pretty definitive and conclusive.  Is California the same as Florida?  I don’t know.  It is a fair question.

Going back to the matter of Lauren Kirk-Coehlo – we can see unconscious bias play a role in the decision to grant her probation.

Kate Mellon-Anibaba continued, “She had opportunities.  She grew up like me, she grew up almost three streets away from where I grew up.  I grew up in Davis.”  She noted that Kirk-Coehlo had a college education at a prestigious university and other good opportunities.  “She had those options.  I would be more sympathetic if she (were) in a backwoods kind of place getting spoon fed Fox news every day.”

Deputy DA Ryan Couzens during sentencing tried to make similar points.

Why was she granted probation?

First, as Judge Maguire pointed out, she had no real criminal history. That remains a huge factor – as the study from U-Penn shows, that may have more of a racial component than we previously thought, but that’s clearly a factor.

But we also see her privilege come into play.  Her family has resources to give her counseling that would not be available in prison and might not be available to lower income defendants.

Her family background and support system plays a role in the sentencing decision.

If she were a poor black facing similar charges, with no college education and no resources for private counseling, would the judge have been so comfortable granting probation and giving her another chance?

Finally, when we run out of empirical data, there is the smell test.  A Muslim with connections to ISIS or Al Qaeda, or at least expressing sympathy for them and jihad, commits a minor crime of vandalism on a church while posting social media threats to commit jihad and kill as many people as possible – is there any possibility that they don’t get prison time?

Bottom line: yes, I think the system is biased and I think Ms. Kirk-Coehlo benefits from her privileged status in society and is given the benefit of the doubt that other people in her place would not have received – and I think the empirical evidence supports that view.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    “She had opportunities.  She grew up like me, she grew up almost three streets away from where I grew up.  I grew up in Davis.” 

    There were many points that you have covered that I think warrant much more consideration and discussion. However, I have not yet seen the concept of the quote above addressed in any detail. There is a false assumption here that people who grow up in the same community will or should arrive at similar perspectives. Unfortunately this discounts many studies that belie the underlying “why is she not like me” attitude. There are biological, psychological, sociologic reasons why people raised in similar circumstances vary widely. Twin and sibling studies have shown dramatic differences between individuals raised in the same family. No two humans will have exactly the same set of inputs and to set oneself or one’s group up as the example of what “should” have happened is a major deterrent to understanding “the other”. It is the relatively benign ( in the sense that Ms. Mellon-Anibaba is not committing antisocial acts) flip side of the lack of compassion that may underlie some of these aggressive acts.

    1. David Greenwald

      Just to be clear, there is an implicit debate here over whether that should be a mitigating or aggravating factor.  The judge seems to believe the background allows for the possibility of change, while the DA argues that her behavior occurred despite these advantages and therefore she should have known better.

    2. John Hobbs

      “… No two humans will have exactly the same set of inputs and to set oneself or one’s group up as the example of what “should” have happened is a major deterrent to understanding “the other”. It is the relatively benign ( in the sense that Ms. Mellon-Anibaba is not committing antisocial acts) flip side of the lack of compassion that may underlie some of these aggressive acts.”

      Thank goodness you didn’t practice psychiatry.

      The”lack of compassion” here seems entirely directed toward the Muslim community. Again, if it is your ox that gets gored, you have a different perspective. What is being ask here is not “why is she not like me.” It is “Why do we cite her privileged circumstances as mitigation for the awful crime that would have landed anyone not white in the pokey for at least 6 months?”

       

  2. Ron

    From article:  “For instance, research by the Quattrone Center (which we reported on this week) at the University of Pennsylvania  in collaboration with the San Francisco Public Defender found that defendants of color are convicted of more serious crimes than white defendants, and that includes 60 percent more felonies and 28 percent longer sentences.”

    This point has been brought up in other ways, but do “people of color” include Asians?  If not, what does that do to these statistics?  Have the statistics been further broken down, between African-Americans, Hispanics, etc.?

    In general, I find it slightly offensive to use the term “people of color” (as if there are only two “races”).  Use of this term tends to pit “whites” vs. “everyone else”.  Although I joke about such terminology at times, this type of labeling is actually harmful, and provides an inaccurate picture.

    Do “whites” have a say, regarding such labeling? (I recall quite a few iterations of labels to describe “other” skin colors, which were eventually deemed racist.)

    1. David Greenwald

      Right now people of color refers to marginalized populations – largely Hispanic and African American – and that’s largely what they studied.

      Do whites have a say over how other groups of people refer to themselves?  No.

      1. Ron

        David:  “Right now people of color refers to marginalized populations – largely Hispanic and African American – and that’s largely what they studied.”

        O.K. – so it doesn’t really have much to do with “color”, if some colors are excluded (despite not being “white”).

        “Marginalized” meaning ?  Are those two groups equally “marginalized”? If not, then what does that mean regarding statistics which combine those two groups?

        More importantly, if some groups are incarcerated more frequently, might that mean that they’re committing a higher percentage of crimes? If they’re also sentenced for longer periods, might that be based upon prior records, or other factors regarding the crime, itself?

        David:  “Do whites have a say over how other groups of people refer to themselves?  No.”

        Not what I asked.

         

        1. Ron

          Alan:  Yes – that’s basically what I was asking (as a person without color).  I guess that Asians are also without color, according to the “formal” definition.

          None of this is terribly important to me. Just a reaction I have, whenever I see these terminologies used.

          The “broader” question – do “persons without color” have an overall “advantage” in this society? (I don’t argue against that.)

        2. Ron

          David:  “I suppose they do”.

          Apparently, referring to my statement regarding “advantage”.  I do see it that way – “those without color” are generally “born into” a better situation than those “with color”.  Not sure that “privilege” is the right word.

          I suppose that we (as a society) should be thankful that Asians are now “included” in the “advantaged club”.

          With the “disadvantaged club”, I suspect that African-Americans are more “disadvantaged” than Hispanics.  However, this is not reflected in the statistics you’ve presented.

          Not sure what any of this means, in terms of realistic solutions.  Not sure if increased “awareness” helps much.

          Truth be told, most people don’t care any more (or less) for their own “race”, than they do for any other “race”.  In the end, it’s up to each individual (or groups of individuals) to be responsible for their own lives, to avoid injuring others, and to take steps to ensure their own “success”.

          The justice system (and laws in this country) are (now) color-blind (at least, on paper).

          (Had to re-type your quote, since once again I can’t see it while logged in.)

      2. Jesse Dunaway

        You sound more like an activist or someone with an axe to grind than you do a journalist.

        What I’ve learned from your writings is that you want greater punishment for all parties committing all crimes and you want the American people to have less faith in their judicial system and less trust in our judges decisions.

        1. David Greenwald

          If you are talking to me, “What I’ve learned from your writings is that you want greater punishment for all parties committing all crimes” – that’s the opposite of my view.

  3. Tia Will

    The judge seems to believe the background allows for the possibility of change, while the DA argues that her behavior occurred despite these advantages and therefore she should have known better.”

    I believe that both may be right. The question for me is how best to utilize all the resources of our community to enhance the chances that each individual regardless of relative advantages and disadvantages can be successfully reintegrated into our community. I do not see “punishment” as having a valid place in reintegration although it may be emotionally gratifying for some.

    1. Ron

      Tia:  “I do not see “punishment” as having a valid place in reintegration although it may be emotionally gratifying for some.”

      There is also another “reason” for prisons:  To remove those who are a demonstrated threat to others from society, for a period of time.  As individuals become older (e.g., in prison), it seems that they’re generally less likely to commit serious crimes when released.

      Prisons would probably work better for reintegration, if there were more opportunities for education and skilled work while incarcerated.  (Seems like there used to be more opportunities to do so, in the past.)

  4. John Hobbs

    ” I do not see “punishment” as having a valid place in reintegration although it may be emotionally gratifying for some.”

    That’s typically condescending, Doc.  I take no “gratification” in anyone’s punishment, but I do think that it is necessary to some folk’s rehabilitation to explain limits and reinforce the seriousness of their offense. An adult time out, if you will to contemplate the consequences of your bad acts.

  5. Tia Will

    Ron

    Please note that I did not say that I do not believe that there is a place for prisons. What I said is that I do not believe that there is a place for “punishment”. I do believe that some individuals are so dangerous, either to themselves or others, that confinement of some sort is necessary. However, I see no reason that the confinement should not be as humane as possible with as many opportunities for rehabilitation/reintegration as possible with age being one obvious criteria in which dangerousness seems to decline over time. Gender is another since upwards of 80 % of women are incarcerated for non violent crimes.

  6. Tia Will

    What is being ask here is not “why is she not like me.” “

    Perhaps you did not watch the entire tape in which Kate clearly says at one point “she is me” clearly referencing the similarities of their backgrounds. Of course, all she is seeing is the similarity and not the differences which of course she is not privy to. The whole point of empathy is to move beyond  the “whose ox is being gored” to see the issue from the eyes of the other. To not be able to do this is a lack of empathy regardless of which side of an issue one is on. Obviously, there is a difference between those who lack empathy but do not act on it, and those who lack empathy and act aggressively.

    1. John Hobbs

      “To not be able to do this is a lack of empathy”

      Yes, like the empathy you lack for those actually affected by crime, such as Chip Northrup,Claudia Maupin, Kevin Johnson and your Muslim neighbors., though your compassion for their abusers Daniel Marsh, Sean Thompson and Lauren Kirk-Coehlo knows no end. Heal thyself.

  7. Ron

    Tia – I suspect that you have a point, regarding “punishment” in general.  Perhaps more harmful overall for society in the long run, than helpful.  Not entirely sure.

    And yet, it’s pretty difficult to not want “revenge” (on a personal level), when someone injures you.  (Even if one labels that as “justice”.)

    I do wish that prisons were safer for inmates, and generally provided opportunities for earned benefits resulting from “desirable and productive” behaviors.  (And, to provide a mechanism for inmates to pay restitution, and possibly for their own incarceration.)  However, I also understand that this could lead to unintended consequences/exploitation.

     

  8. Alan Miller

    Right now people of color refers to marginalized populations – largely Hispanic and African American – and that’s largely what they studied.

    So, you say, people of color are marginalized populations.  Therefore, for example, most Asians have no color under this definition.  I am Jew Color, by my own definition.

    So, again, you say, people of color are marginalized populations.  And of course marginalized populations are marginalized.  So let’s call them what they are:  marginalized populations.  Some of them are even in the group formerly known as white; most are not.  “Color”, it seems, is a dated term not having a clear definition, or serving some purpose by not having a clear definition.

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