by Kelsea Valerio
SACRAMENTO- Former Public Defender and DA Candidate Rachal Rossi was hard hitting on Tuesday as she addressed racial disparities that exist within the incarceration system.
“We’ve seen the Civilian Oversight Commission taking steps toward trying to bring our sheriff’s department into check, but then not having the power to actually do anything about it,” Rossi said referencing Measure R, a recently passed measure that aims to reduce jail populations by granting the Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power.
She added, “We need to find ways where we can increase oversight but also increase the power of oversight of our LA county jails. When we talk about what are the next steps, I think it is to move toward oversight of prosecutorial functions as well.”
While the grassroots candidate Rossi may not have won the election in this year’s race for Los Angeles District Attorney, it has not deterred her from continuing to address policies that focus on highlighting the ways in which the criminal justice system focuses on marginalized groups in the United States.
Rossi campaigned heavily for tracking data that would determine underlying trends in policing and prosecution, such as the prosecution of only black men in particular Los Angeles neighborhoods, and pushed for policies to address such institutional racism.
As a former public defender, Rossi saw racial disparities that exist within the justice system in courtrooms every day. She recalls one instance where she walked into a federal courtroom after there had just been a sweep of Compton and saw rows and rows of accused black men.
“It’s unfortunate that there are still a lot of folks that do believe systemic racism doesn’t exist. 80% of people in LA County jail are black and brown. 80% of people are not criminals just because they are black and brown, so there has to be a problem in the system, the policing, the arresting, and the charging,” propounded Rossi.
In order to bring about criminal justice reform, Rossi calls for a shift in the cultural mindset of the country.
One area of reform has been to eliminate cash bail from the system.
As Rachel Rossi explained, if the detained has been charged and has not been found guilty the question is whether they should be kept in jail or set free. Historically in California, this decision has been solely monetary based.
She noted that those who post bail are released and those who cannot afford to do so stay locked in jail despite not having been convicted of a crime. As a result, individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately detained pretrial, which leads to a host of inequities in the system.
In November, California will vote on Prop. 25, a referendum to bill Senate Bill 10, which eliminated cash bail. Prop. 25 would repeal cash bail and replace it with risk assessment tools to determine whether or not a person may be released pretrial.
Even so, Rossi pointed out the inherent flaws that exist with such risk assessment tools. For instance, if one of the conditions when determining a high risk candidate would be a high number of warrants, then this algorithm would also be racially biased because it would still be directed at marginalized communities.
With 2.3 million people in prison, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California violated the constitution by overcrowding prisons and the state was forced to move toward decarceration.
In light of the recent movements toward prison reform by organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Rossi says “We’ve seen the public, our community, activated in a different way than we have in the past with protesting and being aware of what the system is doing to people. And I think that for us to truly reimagine what the system looks like, it needs to be on every level including our education system. We have to look at how homelessness is interplaying with our criminal justice system, mental health, substance use, health care.”
Consequently, Sacramento has seen new bills being introduced to address different ways to approach policing such as Prop. 17, which would allow people on parole for felony convictions to vote.
A progressive pro-choice woman of color, Rossi believes that because women have been overlooked because they represent such a small percent of the incarcerated. She acknowledges that women are being incarcerated at much higher rates than men and brought to light issues that arise concerning women’s prisons including pregnancy and proper access to health care.
It was only as recently as 2017 that a federal law was passed to mandate that women in custody are to have access to tampons and other healthcare products.
In Los Angeles county, Rossi noted, “We still criminalize sex work and we do it in a way that very disproportionally affects women, black women, and transgender women.”
Often women charged with a sex crime would face mandatory jail time, while domestic abusers would not.
In Los Angeles, she pointed out, if someone arrested for the crime of prostitution can prove they are a victim of trafficking, there is a defense to the charge.
However, Rossi repeatedly found that these women would prefer to take the jail time over fighting their case, unwilling to testify, in some cases fearing the repercussions from their pimp.
When talking about criminal justice reform Rossi understands that it is absolutely vital to consider the impact on women and a movement towards reducing the number of the incarcerated women.
With an optimistic tone, Rossi is hopeful for the future of California’s criminal justice system.
She maintains that the main topic of conversation for criminal justice reform has shifted from “How do we reform the system?” to “Why don’t we reduce how much money we put into that system and put money toward communities and into treatment and into jobs and into healthcare and all of the things that will make our communities thrive and no longer need the policing that we’ve seen in the past?”
For Rossi, change is implemented when leaders make incisive decisions based on what they see in their respective districts.
Accordingly, this when reforms that are specifically geared toward aiding at the local level start to emerge. Rossi feels that, ultimately, California is far ahead of the federal government, pushing toward a faster data driven way of focusing on progressive reforms.
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