When Public Defender Tracie Olson pointed out, quite correctly, that in the Yolo County Jail on April 20, 2020, the population was about 28 percent Black in a county with a population of just 3 percent Blacks, Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig took personal umbrage.
Even though she never once referred to him, his office, or his policies by name, he reacted defensively. He called her comments “inaccurate, irresponsible, and insulting to both prosecutors and the judiciary.” In his more recent comments, he writes, “Since judges exclusively hand down all sentences in California, your statement struck at the heart of Yolo County’s justice system; the judiciary.”
In his recent press release, he writes a 2800-word response to her comments, with the last 1700 or so words used to defend his record.
As per my original response, “he doth protest too much.”
The reaction by DA Reisig is wrong from start to finish. He writes, “Let me be clear, if there is any actual evidence of the judicial bias and/or police corruption as you alleged, I plan to act decisively to address it in a thorough and highly transparent manner.”
He later writes, “Let me be clear, my condemnation of your irresponsible use of incomplete data does not mean that I am unaware or tone deaf to the real issues that have historically affected people of color in a disparate manner.” And he says that “there is no dispute between us that the issues of racial disparity and systemic discrimination need to be aggressively investigated, held up to the light, discussed openly and fixed, wherever an injustice may exist in the system.”
Does Jeff Reisig understand that what Tracie Olson is pointing to is not individual racism but systemic racism? Does he understand that, while Yolo County is a cog in the system, it is only that—one part of the system? Because he is taking very personal exception to something that is actually well beyond his purview.
In 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Just 6 percent of San Francisco residents are African American, yet 56 percent of jail inmates are black.” In 2015, the paper reported on a study that “found that black people were 7.1 times more likely to be arrested in the city in 2013 than white people, a disparity that grew 53 percent in 20 years — even as the same disparity shrunk 23 percent statewide. Across California, black people are three times as likely to be arrested as white people.”
Yesterday, the San Jose Mercury News found that in the last five years there have been 110 deaths in the Bay Area at the hands of police. Twenty-seven percent of those killed by police were Black even though the Black percentage of the population is only 7 percent.
The Bay Area, the paper reports, has “one of the largest such disparities in the nation.” They find, “Black people here are more likely to be killed by police than in any other metro area in America but Oklahoma City.”
One of five people killed by the police were not armed—40 percent of those were Black. The paper found, “Overall, a majority of those killed were experiencing some kind of mental-health crisis.”
Looking at the breakdown by Departments, 19 are by the San Jose PD, 14 by the SF PD and 9 by the Oakland PD. It doesn’t address Solano County, and therefore the Vallejo Police shootings are not included in the analysis.
Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton called it “extremely disheartening.”
Notice she didn’t accuse the paper of personally attacking her office or police.
In an article last week, FiveThirtyEight.com offered some interesting insight into the systemic bias in policing.
The article notes that there is plenty of data to back up the notion of racial disparities in the criminal justice system: “Black and Hispanic people are stopped more frequently, including traffic stops, and are more likely to be arrested. Once stopped, police are more likely to use force against, shoot and kill Black citizens. And then once in jail, Black defendants are more likely to be denied bail, which in turn makes conviction more likely. And when convicted, sentencing is also biased against Black defendants, with Black defendants more likely to be incarcerated.”
Writes the authors: “The data seems to overwhelmingly point to a criminal justice system riven by racial bias. But, remarkably, it could be even more overwhelming than some studies make it seem.”
They note a problem that I have pointed out a number of times, but they use a statistically-based terminology to describe it. They call it “collider bias.” This they define as “a kind of selection bias that means that the crime data that shows racial bias is, itself, biased by racist practices.” In other words, the underlying data is itself biased by practices.
They argue: “Police engage with only a small subset of the population they see, so if we look at statistics about those interactions, the stats we get are informed by that smaller sample. And if there’s bias in who the police choose to interact with — if it’s not a random sample — that can change the relationships you see in the data.”
The bottom line here is not necessarily as Jeff Reisig has taken it to mean—that individuals are racially biased. There clearly are people in every walk of life who are personally racially biased, but that is not what is generating the problem.
And so his solution here is simply wrongheaded. Tracie Olson is not accusing individuals of bias. She is accusing the system of bias.
“This is not about one incident,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “This is about the systemic and pervasive nature of racism in this nation that must be addressed.”
Johnson was quoted in USA Today and referring to the George Floyd death, but he could easily have been talking about the Yolo County dispute.
What we need to understand is systemic racism. Johnson defined it as structural or institutional racism where “systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans.”
Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, defined it as “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives.
“Systemic racism is naming the process of white supremacy,” Harris said.
The concept dates back a long way, but was first named during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and further refined in the 1980s.
In the criminal justice system, we see this pretty much everywhere—Black and Brown people are disadvantaged at every step in the process. They are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and once convicted more likely to be sentenced to prison—and more likely to be sentenced to prison for a longer period of time.
Part of that is unconscious bias, part of that is related to lack of resources, and part of that is due to patterns and practices of policing that focus on certain subsections of the nation to enforce laws.
Are there things that we could be doing locally to reduce systemic racism? Absolutely. The criminal justice system is rapidly reforming. Unfortunately, where it has been issues like Prop. 47, Prop. 57, Prop. 64 or bail reform, Jeff Reisig has opposed all of the reforms.
But while he plays his part in his charging policies, the overall system is the problem and that is not just about him.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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