Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson’s recent interview raised some very challenging questions for our local justice system—including how police, prosecutors and even judges contribute to the over-incarceration of black people.
Ms. Olson correctly noted that 25% of inmates currently housed in Yolo County Prison are black, even though only 3% of the County population is black—even though under 8% of California’s population is black. We could quibble about the County of residence of this population but her point is well taken: the number of blacks incarcerated in our county far outweighs their share of our local and even our state population by 5-8 times.
An appropriate question we should all be asking is “Why”?
With the turmoil gripping this nation over racial inequities in policing and justice, it is beyond time for us to look at these numbers closely and discern where we have been and where we are going in terms of the racial disparities that run throughout our legal system.
Perhaps even more alarming than Ms. Olson’s comments on levels of black incarceration was an assertion by her and Monica Brushia, a supervising public defender in her office, that a client of Ms. Brushia’s was arrested in Yolo County carrying $12,000, but that the police only documented $2,000. These are the voices of people who have been arrested and charged and the clear implication is that $10,000 was taken somewhere in the process. In another instance, they claim that a defendant was arrested with five grams of methamphetamine, but only two grams were reported; again, the supposition being, again, that somewhere in the process three grams of methamphetamine went missing.
These are grave and disturbing allegations and I will be requesting an investigation to get to the bottom of what is happening locally. I will be looking to partner closely with the Public Defender to understand how these things might have happened.
We clearly have a long way to go and this moment has shown us just how far…
Despite the fact that the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has tried to bring transparency and racial equality to our justice system, including programs in which Ms. Olson’s office has been a part, we see that our brothers and sisters in the black community still face a legal system that must feel systematically stacked against them.
And though we are also one of the few DA offices to have a fully developed restorative justice program through which we have diverted almost two thousand cases instead of prosecuting, we have never published data to analyze the extent to which black people and other people of color access this system differently than white people. And though our office recently announced a “race-blind charging” program where police cases will be sent for prosecutor review with all possible references to race and name stricken from the report, we will need to track it closely to assure that it has the desired effect. We must be transparent and open about how it works and will be inviting Ms. Olson’s office to examine its results in collaboration with our office.
I know what propelled Ms. Olson to launch her critique of justice in Yolo County at this time. It is not just that emotions are so raw in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy. It is that the entire set of circumstances around his death and the deaths of so many others, as well as the clear evidence of a long history of mass incarceration of black people in this country, compels us to step back and examine where we are and where we need to go.
Now, more than ever, we need the public we serve to have faith and reliance on the fair and racially neutral administration of justice. Ms. Olson, I stand with you in a search for how we can do better.
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