By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Tuesday marked the one year anniversary of the Yolo County Public Defender Black Lives Matter march. That evening on TV, Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson told the news station, “Honestly we see Black people go to prison for crimes that white people don’t go to prison for…On April 20, I looked at the jail population. We had about a little under 200 people in the jail, 49 of whom were Black.”
She explained, “So that’s 25% of our Yolo County jail population is Black. Yolo County’s demographic population is 3% Black. So we have over an 800% over-representation of Black men and women in our local jail. So it is a local problem.”
DA Jeff Reisig responded with a series of blistering attacks on the public defender.
He said, “Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson’s recent broadside against the justice system in our county was inaccurate, irresponsible, and insulting to both prosecutors and the judiciary.”
A year later, however, the DA has launched a transparency portal as of April 6 and has announced policy change.
“As a result of data now made available through the portal, Commons, the office has changed policy to ensure more cases—particularly those involving defendants of color—are diverted out of the criminal justice system,” a release on Tuesday stated.
According to that release, the office “will no longer automatically disqualify an individual from being referred to a diversion program based on their criminal history, and is estimated to increase diversions by 15 to 20 percent.”
His office is promising, “The policy change is the first of many to come that will be driven by data from Commons.
“The Commons data portal shows us clear trends that could contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Jeff Reisig, Yolo County District Attorney. “We can see in the data that people of color are disparately represented in cases referred to our office from our local law enforcement agencies. Because criminal history is one of a number of factors determining diversion eligibility, people of color could be disproportionately denied the opportunity for their cases to be diverted before trial.”
According to a May 2017 report by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Criminal Justice, people of color involved in the criminal justice system often have pre-existing differences reflected in their criminal record based on previous encounters with the criminal justice system.
“This criminal history has a ripple effect that impacts how these individuals’ cases are handled by the justice system,” said Reisig. “In the past, people with prior records never made it to the starting line. Now, when my charging deputies review most cases to determine diversion eligibility, they won’t be focusing on the person’s criminal history. Down the road, Commons will tell us whether this new policy change made a difference.”
Public Defender Tracie Olson, who was the target of the DA’s criticism a year ago, called this “a welcome change.”
She told the Vanguard, “This policy recognizes that individuals’ criminal histories can be the product of historical racism. The natural next step is to reduce reliance on old convictions to justify current incarceration and to lengthen prison sentences.”
But how far does this go?
That’s a big question. A year ago, DA Reisig was minimizing the problem.
He noted, “Yolo County’s rate of prison incarceration for black inmates was around 27% below the state average for 2016, the most recent period tracked.” And he blamed the disparities on out-of-county arrests.
Moreover, he grew very defensive, stating, “I don’t know what propelled Ms. Olson to launch her baseless critique of justice in Yolo County, especially while emotions are so raw in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy. I do know that she is wrong and I call upon her to immediately bring her allegations and any supporting documentation to the next hearing of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.”
Of course he said this before he had the data, which now tacitly acknowledges she was correct.
He took it as an indictment on the local actors rather than a result of systemic racism.
He said, “Ms. Olson indicts our local judges by claiming she has been witness to specific acts of discriminatory sentencing. She alleges that she has seen our judges sentencing black defendants to prison for crimes that ‘white people do not go to prison for.’
“These are remarkable allegations and one must wonder why Ms. Olson has chosen to remain silent until now instead of using her position as the county’s public defender to alert the community and outside judicial authorities to these reputed miscarriages of justice.”
On the other hand, the language in the release still seeks to avoid personal responsibility.
The data tool, Reisig says, “reveals racial disparity in cases sent to prosecutor’s office,” casting the DA himself as the savior who is fixing the problem.
Moreover, the problems that Tracie Olson pointed out a year ago—remain.
She told the Vanguard on Tuesday, “We still have an over-representation of Black men and women in our local jail. While the county is 3% Black, on May 3, 2021, 21.5% of our jail population was Black. We simply haven’t made much progress since I talked about this last June. However, I have reason to hope that this policy change is one of many more to come from the county’s criminal legal system.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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