Last Monday all across the state and around the nation, public defenders took to the streets marching for Black lives. Following that event, ABC 10 interviewed Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson as well as Monica Brushia, one of her chief deputies.
Ms. Olson explained that the protests were “an act of solidarity to show that not only do we bear witness to all the injustices that we see not only to our Black clients, but it was important to show that we were united in a fight against what we see every day in our courtrooms.”
Then Mike Duffy asked the obvious question, “What kinds of disparities have you seen?”
Tracie Olson responded: “Honestly we see Black people go to prison for crimes that white people don’t go to prison for…On April 20, I looked at the jail population. We had about a little under 200 people in the jail, 49 of whom were Black. So that’s 25% of our Yolo County jail population is Black. Yolo County’s demographic population is 3% Black. So we have over an 800% over-representation of Black men and women in our local jail. So it is a local problem.”
She wasn’t pulling this stuff out of thin air—we were shown the data that shows exactly that 25 percent of those incarcerated that day were Black.
Here’s the thing to note—at no time did she say anything about the DA. But somehow DA Jeff Reisig made this about him. He got angry. He got defensive.
He saw this somehow as a slight against the justice system as a whole, and he saw himself as the guardian of that justice system.
He said, “Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson’s recent broadside against the justice system in our county was inaccurate, irresponsible, and insulting to both prosecutors and the judiciary.”
To paraphrase Shakespeare, the DA, he doth protest too much and too loudly.
In pushing back so forcefully, he reveals his own vulnerabilities and insecurities.
To be perfectly honest, he should have said nothing. It wasn’t about him. It was an indictment on the system.
Another possibility is, instead of becoming defensive, he could have joined with the public defender. As a friend of mine pointed out, he could have acknowledged that her recent interview raised some very challenging questions about our local justice system—and indeed the justice system in general—and discussed how police, prosecutors and judges contribute to the over-incarceration of Black and Brown people.
By doing this, instead of becoming a party of obstruction and a barrier to reform, he would embrace the inequity of the system, own it, and strive to change it.
But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he does what he accuses Tracie Olson of doing. At a time when emotions are raw, he attempts to dig in and defend the indefensible.
He writes, “Now, more than ever, we need the public we serve to have faith and reliance on the fair and racially neutral administration of justice.”
What, you say? We need faith in a system that incarcerates and kills a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people? Really? You are trying to argue that we have a racially neutral administration of justice? Are you new? Have you not been watching for the last 50 years with your eyes? Have you not had your eyes opened by the last three weeks?
And then Jeff Reisig issues an implied threat: “I do know that she is wrong and I call upon her to immediately bring her allegations and any supporting documentation to the next hearing of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.”
Think about that—like all but one public defender in the state of California, Tracie Olson is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Jeff Reisig is elected by the voters. That gives him a power differential.
And then he calls on her to “apologize to the police, prosecutors, and judges you have recklessly and unfairly maligned.”
But has she? The facts speak for themselves. They are simple and stark. Forty-nine of the 194 people in the jail on April 20 were Black. The population of Yolo County is three percent Black. That is disproportionate.
Jeff Reisig wants to argue that she is wrong. But in doing so, he uses nuance. His key point: “Ms. Olson ignored the residency of those inmates from her data; verified black Yolo County residents only made up approximately 10% of the inmate population.”
First of all, we have no way of knowing whether that is true. But second, I’m not sure what he thinks that proves. In the end, we have a disproportionate number of Black people in jail in Yolo County and, as San Francisco Public Defender Danielle Harris pointed out in a tweet last night, as bad as that is, San Francisco is still worse with a 6 percent Black population and 55 percent of those in prison.
The overall problem does not begin or end in Yolo County—it is a systemic problem where Black and Brown people are over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Across the state yesterday, her fellow public defenders stepped up to defend her.
Brendon Woods, the only African American chief public defender in the state of California, had her back.
Did this prosecutor actually demand an apology from a Public Defender that called out systemic racism, mass incarceration and a commitment to defend her clients against abuse by police. Does he watch the news! #Yolo we have a problem! We applaud @TracieOlsonPD #BlackLivesMatter
— Brendon Woods (@BrendonWoodsPD) June 16, 2020
In another tweet, he noted, “Instead of self-reflection and working towards racial justice, we get another bullying attack. Nowhere does the DA just state that #BlackLivesMatter & We know why!”
Ignoring his being overly defensive and going on the attack, the biggest flaw in his response was that at no point in time did Jeff Reisig acknowledge that the reason everyone is so upset is because we have a problem. At no point does he talk about attempting to fix the problems.
Instead he demands that Tracie Olson apologize for being right and speaking “truth to power.”
And the fact is, she does it as an appointed public defender in a county with an all-male and mostly white Board of Supervisors. That took real courage. Fortunately for Tracie Olson, a lot of people had her back yesterday.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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