Monday Morning Thoughts: Reisig, PPIC Study, and Racial Disparity in Criminal Legal System

Part of the defense offered by Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig, in face of criticism that Yolo County has about 28 percent of its jail comprised of Blacks while the share of the overall population for that group is three percent, are all the steps that he has taken to alleviate racial disparities.

One of the points we have made is that DA Reisig, far from a reformer, has actually opposed every single major criminal justice reform measure that has come down from the state: abolition of the Death Penalty, bail reform, felony murder reform and the major propositions: Prop. 47, Prop. 57 and Prop. 64.

The issue of Prop. 47 particularly resonates.  In a study from the PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) that came out in June, they found that while “significant inequities persist in California and elsewhere, our findings point to a reduction in pretrial detention and a narrowing of racial disparities in key statewide criminal justice outcomes.”

Prop. 47 was passed by the California voters in November 2014 and overwhelmingly by Yolo County voters, despite the DA’s strong and vocal opposition.

In the PPIC study they look at the impact of Prop. 47, “which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, on racial disparities in arrest and jail booking rates and in the likelihood of an arrest resulting in a booking.”

After the passage of Prop. 47, “the number of bookings quickly dropped by 10.4 percent.”  This has led to a decrease in the use of pretrial detention.

In so doing, it has “led to notable decreases in racial/ethnic disparities in arrests and bookings.”

The PPIC finds: “The African American–white arrest rate gap narrowed by about 5.9 percent, while the African American–white booking rate gap shrank by about 8.2 percent. Prop 47 has not meaningfully changed the disparities in arrest and booking rates between Latinos and whites, which are still only a small fraction of the African American–white gap.”

This directly relates to the issue at the central point of the dispute between the DA and Public Defender.  And while it is clear that more must be done, the success of Prop. 47 should be illustrative.

The key to the drop: “The narrowing of African American–white disparities has been driven by property and drug offenses. The gap in arrests for these offenses dropped by about 24 percent and the bookings gap narrowed by almost 33 percent. Even more striking, African American–white gaps in arrest and booking rates for drug felonies decreased by about 36 percent and 55 percent, respectively.”

This is particularly notable because it is in the area of drug arrests that we see the greatest disparity between the racial breakdown of usage and drug dealing and arrest and prosecution rates.

They further found, “The likelihood of an arrest leading to a jail booking declined the most for whites, but this is attributable to the relatively larger share of white arrests for drug offenses covered by Prop 47. When we account for arrest offense differences, the decreases in the likelihood of an arrest being booked are similar across race and ethnicity.”

The bottom line is instructive.  In looking at the impact on prison population, the PPIC “found that the sizable reduction in the overall incarceration rate produced by these efforts has led to a narrowing of racial disparities in the proportion institutionalized on any given day. In particular, the African American–white incarceration gap dropped from about 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points, a decrease of about 36 percent.”

So is Jeff Reisig, who reacted so defensively toward the suggestion that his policies may be contributing to the disparity in arrest rates between whites and Blacks, supportive of these changes?

Not at all.  He opposed Prop. 47 in 2014 and has attacked it every chance he has gotten since then.

In 2018, during the height of his election, the Appeal ran an article, accusing him of “circumventing Prop 47.”

They report, “In a county of a little over 200,000 people, the elected Yolo County district attorney, Jeff Reisig, has been using his prosecutorial discretion to circumvent Proposition 47 and Proposition 57, two measures that passed in 2014 and 2016 intended to reduce state prison populations.”

In fact, “by using a felony charge known as ‘conspiracy to commit misdemeanor’—the charge makes any theft conducted by more than one person a felony regardless of the amount—Reisig is threatening to send people to prison for minor acts of theft.”

This again directly relates to the issue raised by the PPIC study—that Prop. 47 reduces racial disparity in arrest for property crimes.  And yet here is an example where policies by the DA directly undermine that impact.

DA Reisig in 2017 told the Board of Supervisors that Proposition 47 had a produced “a revolving door of low-level arrests” in Yolo County.

Judges, he argued, were referring drug offenders to probation where they received no drug treatment.  At that point, Reisig argued, they committed more drug and property crimes.

His position was strongly countered at that time by Judges Dave Rosenberg and Kathleen White.

“If they choose jail,” wrote Judges Rosenberg and White, “the court will order 240 days in county jail. Facing significant jail time, the vast majority of defendants choose to take the probation option.”

The PPIC concludes: “In addition to meaningfully reducing racial disparities in key criminal justice outcomes, the reclassification of drug and property offenses led to significant decreases in arrests and bookings, and hence pretrial detention.”

The PPIC back in 2018 had previously found that, while there is “no evidence that violent crime increased as a result of Proposition 47,” they did find some evidence that Prop. 47 affected property crimes.

“Statewide, property crime increased after 2014,” they find.  “While the reform had no apparent impact on burglaries or auto thefts, it may have contributed to a rise in larceny thefts, which increased by roughly 9 percent compared to other states.”

However, “Despite recent upticks, California’s crime rates remain comparable to the low rates observed in the 1960s—even with the dramatic reductions in incarceration ushered in by recent criminal justice reforms.”

There is definitely a bit of a tradeoff here, but if we want to address racial disparities in the system, we need to attack the places in the system that the disparities occur.  And Jeff Reisig has opposed most of those reforms.

—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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  1. Tia Will

    I would like to raise an issue that is rarely mentioned in these discussions of jail vs probation. That is the issue of collateral damage from incarceration. In every crime that involves incarceration, there are two sets of victims. But our current system acknowledges only one, the one whose property is taken. Invisible to most of us are the impacts of incarceration on the family members of the accused. While we rightfully invest in “victim’s rights”, systemically we ignore the harms done to the family unit in general, and specifically, the potentially lifelong adverse impacts on young children separated from a parent.

    1. Keith Olsen

      But our current system acknowledges only one, the one whose property is taken.

      Or the one whose life was taken or badly injured by the criminal and the consequences on the victim’s family for the rest of their lives including “the potentially lifelong adverse impacts on young children separated from a parent.”

      1. Tia Will


        You ignored the fact that our system has many programs to help the members of families who have lost a parent or partner to violence these include both publicly financed and private groups. No such support is offered on any level to the innocent members of the family of an accused despite their individual innocence.

          1. David Greenwald

            I have worked with hundreds of families of incarcerated people and I have never met one who have received benefits. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but most of the families I have worked with are struggling and are struggling A LOT MORE with their loved one incarcerated.

    2. Bill Marshall

      You are correct… two sets of victims… with a common individual who victimized them… assuming they were not a wrongfully accused individual.

      If you limit the discussion to minor property crimes, then I’d add the young children should be taught not to follow the “parental” behavior, when the parent is released…  If you are talking about the “theft” of a life/limb/health type of crime, I opine the children might well be better off without the ‘role model’ present.

      A distinction should be made between those “accused”, but not adjudicated (there I’d opine that I would lean towards keeping the family intact, until the process plays out, and argue for), and those incarcerated once found ‘guilty’ of the charges (see previous paragraph).

      It is ‘rocket science’… but using a weak analogy from your profession’s training, “first, do no harm”.  Minor crime, unadjudicated, lean heavily to release.  Minor crime, convicted, a bit less so, but lean towards.  Murder, rape, domestic violence, evidence of MH issues, would lean against… or more… at one extreme, DeAngelo, not particularly concerned about the impact to his family due to his incarceration… that’s fully on him.

      So, I agree, with caveats… but, it ain’t simple.

      1. Tia Will


        I agree with your caveat. Of course anyone who is judged to be factually dangerous to the community, not just his property, should not be released into the community.

    3. John Hobbs

      Tia, many places in Europe use House arrest, being sentenced to time at home, under close surveillance, rather than serving a jail sentence for non-violent offenders. Offenders who have regular, gainful employment are usually permitted to go to work for particular hours every day as part of their court ordered house arrest. This keeps the family together and pays the bills. One of my Italian friends credits this system with allowing her family to keep their home whole the father was serving time for a no-violent (illegal gambling) crime. The added benefit is a greater respect (and less fear) for the law.

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