By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO, CA – Charging nearly 40 percent of “caged persons” in Sacramento County are Black and suggesting “criminal legal outcomes (are) discriminatory and racist,” community health, religious and criminal justice reform advocates fired off a scathing letter this week to Sacramento County Superior Court – including dozens of judges – criticizing access to the courts.
The groups referenced a public notice sent late last week by the courts that established new rules for criminal courtrooms that have been open to the public for nearly a year via livestreaming – the video provided a full view of the goings-on inside the courts, seldom seen by those who are not defendants, lawyers or court personnel.
The pre-trial courts are important in criminal matters because about 95 percent or more of defendants settle their cases without trial in these hearings. News media – other than The Vanguard – seldom cover them.
“We propose that the Court adhere to the same guidelines of other public institutions—25 percent capacity and mask requirement,” the community groups said, and asked the Superior Court for a meeting to “understand how CARES Act funding was spent.”
“Our CourtWatch team is interested in how these public funds are being used to ensure courtroom policies, systems, culture that upholds the presumption of innocence, transparency, and fundamental democratic ideals,” they noted in the letter.
“Every year, nearly 40,000 people are arrested in Sacramento County for felonies and misdemeanors. Thirty-seven percent of caged persons are Black in a county where Black residents make up just 11 percent of the general population.
“This disparity suggests that the criminal legal outcomes, much of them facilitated and approved by our court system, are discriminatory and racist–intentionally or not,” the letter charged.
It continued, “For this reason, and with recognition of the damage mass carceral systems have imposed on poor, Black and Brown communities, and due to the disregard for the presumption of innocence standard, we refer to the Criminal (In)justice System.”
“This is a pivotal moment for Sacramento’s Superior Court to decide what direction it will take in terms of transparency and accountability. Last year, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors declared racism a public health crisis,” the letter reads.
“This same crisis is made evident by the Court through the aforementioned barriers. Sacramento Superior Court’s choice is to continue that racist legacy, or set a precedent that is rooted in equity.”
The letter identified the authors as a “coalition of community and public health, faith-based, and system change experts who work as racial equity analysts and educators. Our interest is to work with you, our most independent and powerful body of decision-makers to create antiracist policies and protocols that by overwhelming evidence creates a safer, healthier and more economically sound Sacramento Region.”
The organizations are specifically asking for a continuation of live-streaming access – the latest Sacramento County Superior Court notice seemed to say that, for many courts, it would be discontinued.
“(E)nsure all court proceedings are live-streamed over YouTube so our families and friends can watch their loved ones. This feature should be made permanent even after COVID to allow maximum transparency over life-altering proceedings.
“The removal of this option begs the question–what patterns of discrimination lay hidden in Sacramento courts–that it cannot be wholly accessible and transparent to the public it serves?” the groups asked.
Additionally, they note that COVID-19 precautions for some court personnel should be ended, specifically judges and deputy district attorneys, and they should be required to be in the same courtroom as defendants.
“(G)iven that judges, the district attorneys, the public defenders, and sheriff bailiff, and all other court system actors received priority vaccinations, all court system actors should physically be in the same courtroom if the person accused is required to also be present,” the organizations noted.
“To date, judges and DAs were physically, and likely emotionally distant from courtroom proceedings as they attended remotely. Only the public and private criminal defenders have physically stood side-by-side with our loved ones as they stare at a computer monitor with the judge and DA at a remote location,” they added.
Finally, the missive to the county courts asked to “bring humanity to the criminal justice system” by allowing family members have appropriate and safe access to attend” hearings.
The court’s suggested “email lottery system” that requires email and internet access, “is a barrier to those who are low-income and people of color–evidence of the disregard for the disproportionately poor and persons of color who face arrest and court,” they said.
The high cost of downtown parking is troublesome, according to the letter, creating a “poll tax” on engaging in a system that is constitutionally protected.”
Another requirement of the courts requires all those attending court to disclose to law enforcement their name and reason for attendance. That is intrusive and irrelevant to COVID protocols, said the groups.
“This ask, regardless of the intent, has no legal standing and is rooted in a culture of intimidation. We take particular note of Sacramento’s law enforcement agencies’ legacy of surveillance and retaliation against Black and Brown communities,” they said.
“Sacramento’s residents look forward to seeing these changes that support a more fair and just court system for our families and communities,” the letter summarized.
The letter authors noted that “When our loved ones show up for their first court hearing at arraignment, they may have already lost their car, their job, and incomes for their families due to elapsed time and lack of communication access from arrest to arraignment.
“There they stand, in an orange jumpsuit in a steel cage. They are disheveled, disoriented, and confused about how the next two minutes of the arraignment hearing will additionally alter their life course, as well as that of their families and neighborhoods.
“The arresting officers, bailiff, clerk, judge and prosecutors work as actors in a system that perpetuates racist outcomes with rare disruption on behalf of our loved ones who are expected to endure under the assumption of guilt. They are stripped of any dignity, wellbeing, and voice. In desperation, they figuratively prostrate themselves before the hall of justice–all before being found guilty of any crime.”
Alerting court officials that they’ve been watching the livestreams from the court, the groups said, “In our hundreds of hours of live YouTube Court watching…the DA, the Public Defender, and thousands of loved ones, our critique is NOT with the people (actors) involved in the criminal injustice system. People are doing their jobs.
“Therein lies much of the challenge. Harmful outcomes are consistent with current practices. We are interested in systems change that combats racism, delivers equitable justice, and produces real public safety for all,” they added.
The letter was signed by Ryan McClinton, Public Health Advocates; Kaleemah Muttaqi, Live Free; Betty Williams, Greater Sacramento NAACP; Gabby Trejo, Sacramento Area Congregations Together (SacACT); Kim Williams, Building Healthy Communities; Oussama Mokkedem, Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR); Khalil Ferguson, United CORE Alliance; Jim Keddy, Youth Forward; Courtney Hansen, Decarcerate Sacramento; Julius Thibodeaux, Advance Peace; Ruth Ibarra, NorCal Resist; Henry Ortiz, Community Healers; and Lynn Berkley-Baskin, Justice2Jobs Coalition.
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