Guest Commentary: Closing Our Eyes Will Not Address Systemic Racial Bias

By Cynthia Rodriguez

Racial bias in charging and sentencing criminal defendants in Yolo County is an acknowledged problem that we must address head-on. A year ago Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig attempted to publicly shame Tracie Olson, the Yolo County Public Defender, when she pointed out that Yolo County’s 3% black population made up 23% of the custody spots in Yolo’s Jail, clear evidence of systemic racial bias.  At that point DA Reisig tried to convince us that Olsen’s statistic did not mean what it clearly means, that on his watch there is systemic bias in Yolo County, as there is across the country.

This Spring he changed his tune.   After 15 years of secrecy and failure to inform the public of his ongoing record, DA Reisig finally shared the statistics about prosecutions in his Spring 2021 information portal; he can no longer deny the existence of systemic racial bias in the conduct of his office.  Forced to acknowledge the statistically apparent bias in charging and sentencing in Yolo County, he has just decided to introduce a so-called “blind charging” program developed by social scientists at Stanford.  It will do little to address the broader systemic bias that is prevalent throughout the justice system, and turns a blind eye to how we came to be in this situation on his watch in Yolo County.

The basic problem with DA Reisig’s new “blind charging” program is that it passes off responsibility for fixing the problem of systemic bias to an algorithm that substitutes for the exercise of sound judgment.  DA Reisig’s consistent failure to exercise good judgment at the critical point in the criminal justice process — the DA’s policy for charging people with crimes  (for one example, his inability to consider statutory diversion programs for all Yolo residents) – is the real source of the problem.  His new program boils down to an attempt to escape accountability for a history of racial disparities in Yolo county criminal prosecutions by substituting an algorithm for good judgment.

This “charging tool,” a substitute for actual judgment (whether biased or reasonable), is not likely to make much difference in charging, unless most of the racial biases DA Reisig believes will be eliminated are limited to racially motivated deputies in his office, a notion I do not subscribe to but which his new “blind charging” program seems to suggest.  If so, why hasn’t DA Reisig eliminated or reduced bias in his office in his many years in charge?  Does he lack confidence in his own judgment and that of his deputies?

But this algorithm will not address all of the systemic racial bias DA Reisig should be accounting for in the conduct of his office.  For example, it does not address how police reports are produced, arguably the greatest source of systemic or unconscious bias.  Analysis of the data in the portal about how stops are instituted should also be considered.  For example, if the charging DA were to look at all broken tail light stops or other infractions to see if they are implicated in disproportionate racial make-up of defendants, it might contribute to discerning bias in the charging process.

If systemic bias in charging is to be tackled, it must be through the exercise of judgment and prosecutorial discretion, not by the DA’s closing his eyes to the problem.  DA Reisig’s claim that he is introducing this program because “people across the country have made it clear they want meaningful reform” is belied by the reality of his substituting an algorithm for actual policy reform.  He is coming late but not to the party because he is not at the party.  He is offering a technique for avoiding taking responsibility for the fact that he has pursued policing and charging policies for a decade and a half that have resulted in racially biased law enforcement.

It was always DA Reisig’s obligation to the community to treat each member fairly, to use his best judgment to root out unfair processes, to make the changes that would stop unfairness.  The blind charging program is not something to be proud of, it is a continuation of his practice of evading the need to achieve racial justice in Yolo County.  If DA Reisig is unwilling to trust his own judgment in making law enforcement decisions for our county why should we?  Let’s open our eyes to the evasion that is “blind charging.”

Cynthia Rodriguez is a former Public Defender and candidate for DA in Yolo County

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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33 Comments

  1. larryguenther

    This article hits some really key points that reveal the bad parts of this plan:

    – attempt to escape accountability

    – Reisig questions his own judgement

    Also, algorithms reflect the people that write them. If they are written by people with bias, the bias will be built in. Even well-written algorithms have big problems – as anyone who pays attention to directed advertising knows.

    After Mr. Reisig berated Public Defender Olson for calling out bias in the system and vehemently denying any such bias, he is now advocating that a robot do the work of sentencing; this both acknowledges bias in the system under his control and implies that he is not qualified to address it.

  2. Ron Oertel

    when she pointed out that Yolo County’s 3% black population made up 23% of the custody spots in Yolo’s Jail, clear evidence of systemic racial bias. 

    How is it that in an educated college town, comments like this are accepted as fact (regarding “evidence” of cause)?

    It’s beyond irresponsible to claim such a thing.

    As a side note, does the 23% include non-residents of Yolo county?  If not, that would be yet another error.

    This Spring he changed his tune. 

    Did he?

    1. David Greenwald

      Largely because we’ve examined the jail population and see the racial disparities. Moreover, there is about 30 years of academic research on the topic, peer reviewed… I know you don’t believe systemic racism exists, but you also have never read the academic literature to my knowledge.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Largely because we’ve examined the jail population and see the racial disparities.

        Again, that’s NOT definitive evidence of “systemic racism”.

        It is just as likely (if not MORE likely) that it is a result of differences in crime rates between different groups.

        It is absolute insanity (and downright dangerous to society) to claim that there’s something “wrong” with a system, simply due to disparate results.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I was just thinking of this.

          Here’s an example of something (off the top-of-my-head) which might lead me to suspect that it’s occurring, in regard to the commonly-accepted definition.

          If one incarcerated group (awaiting trial) was convicted at a lower rate than another incarcerated group.

          If systemic racism is simply defined as a system having a greater impact on one group vs. another (on average), then that’s obviously true.  But it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the system itself. In fact, the system itself might be operating completely “fairly”, or using another word – with “justice”.

          1. David Greenwald

            The state of the data:

            Blacks and to a slightly lesser extent brown people are more likely arrested, more likely to convicted, more likely to receive prison time/ longer sentence than whites with comparable crime/ record. That’s very well established data.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Blacks and to a slightly lesser extent brown people are more likely arrested, more likely to convicted, more likely to receive prison time/ longer sentence than whites with comparable crime/ record.

          So of the three citations, only one may clearly indicate “systemic racism” (the last one).

          The first two could just as easily be explained by differences in actual crime rates.

          That’s very well established data.

          Earlier today, you questioned a poll based upon “who” apparently hired them.  Do you apply the same level of skepticism in regard to who analyzes and reports such results?

          (Again, we’re only talking about the last point, here.)

          This is the type of data that would require a deep dive, rather than just accepting what is said on here.

          For what it’s worth, I do suspect that some “systemic racism” (as you apparently define it) occurs.  But, I flat-out don’t believe that this is the primary reason that some groups experience higher levels of incarceration than other groups.

          As far as “extent brown people” (as you describe them), does their rate of arrest, conviction, and incarceration exactly correlate with the degree of their darker hue?

          Actually, that question would apply to black people, as well.  And white people.  And Asians, Native Americans, etc.

          What an outright dangerous and irresponsible view you (and others) have, regarding an expectation that “results” should be equal (and that action should be taken to ensure that outcome).

          And in this case, that opinion is coming for a candidate for the Yolo county prosecutor position, no less!

          1. David Greenwald

            See that’s the problem.

            the arrest rate may be less due differentials in crime and more to do with where police are deployed and or what police priorities are.

            Second, and perhaps more importantly, differentials in crime rate may themselves be due to systemic racism.

            I get uncomfortable with your response because there is a vast literature on this and experts weighing in and you don’t appear well versed in this field.

        3. Ron Oertel

          So of the three citations, only one may clearly indicate “systemic racism” (the last one). Assuming it’s even being reported correctly.

          And actually, that could be a reflection of “personal” bias.  With the ultimate “source” of that bias being actual differences in crime rates between groups.

          The law itself does not permit differences in length of incarceration based upon skin color.

          I get uncomfortable with your response because there is a vast literature on this and experts weighing in and you don’t appear well versed in this field.

          Typical arrogance, not uncommon from those with your pre-determined point of view. Again, are you suggesting that the “vast literature” does not have a pre-determined bias, itself?

          You’re the one who initially responded to my comment, not the other-way around.

          1. David Greenwald

            “The law itself does not permit differences in length of incarceration based upon skin color.”

            And yet, that’s what the data shows.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Maybe, but again – that’s a deep dive into data.

          And again, that would more likely be a reflection of personal bias.

          If you don’t believe there’s a difference in actual crime rates between different groups, I can suggest some different places for you to venture into, to see what happens.  I can pick some places for you that I (and anyone else with common sense) would view as dangerous, along with some places that would be viewed as relatively “safe”.  (As long as they’re not being “visited” by someone from a dangerous area.)

          And then, you can report back here regarding the skin color of any perpetrators of crime against you.  Just an informal survey. But the bottom line (which you already know) is that you would not experience “equal outcome” regarding the skin color of your perpetrators. They likely would not even care that you’re one of their “personal champions”. (Well actually, not “personal”, so much as a “group” champion. Given that many of their victims share their skin color.)

          Seriously – let me know if you’d like some suggestions.

          And then, maybe you’ll have a better explanation of “systemic racism” that we can discuss.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Classic example – drugs. By all measures, Blacks and whites use illegal drugs at similar rates, maybe even slightly favoring whites. Whites more likely to sell drugs than Blacks. And yet the arrest and incarceration rate is 80-20 percent. There are a whole bunch of explanations for this – most of it structural and where police deploy their resources.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Given that many of their victims share their skin color.

          Actually, I would argue that you’re not even a “group” champion, due to this.

          If anything, your type of advocacy harms the group(s) that you’re most interested in advocating for.

          Go talk with some of the victims of crime within those groups, to see how they feel about incarcerating their respective perpetrators (or if they want them released in the name of “systemic racism”). Ask them if they think it’s the fault of “systemic racism” that they’re victims of crimes.

          In all likelihood, they’re too scared to do so, since they live in those communities.

        6. Ron Oertel

          It is interesting, the only time that we hear concern from someone from those communities (on this blog) is during those rare occasions when police may (or may not) have done something questionable.

          Anyone who isn’t part of the race cult might view the reason for this as being due to the involvement of attorneys and lawsuits.

          Go talk to them about actual crime in their communities, and what they’ve experienced. I suspect that doing so would result in much more empathy than any other type of reporting. Assuming that the reporter gains trust in the first place.

          Or, continue with the “race hustling” type of reporting, as it seems to work for some. Even as it drives others away.

          I’m pretty sure it’s too late for the Vanguard.

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re not refuting the point, you’re just talking about the other side of the coin.

            What do you see in *those* areas: racialized poverty concentrated in highly segregated neighborhoods generates violent crime.

          1. David Greenwald

            The drug example is instructive because it shows what happens even an area where there is clear parity.

        7. Keith Olsen

          race hustling…

          Here’s an explanation of “race hustling” that I found:

          Race Hustlers are people who foment and promote division and fear-mongering to exploit racial and ethnic tensions in order to advance some personal, political, ideological, financial, or other agenda.

          How is it uncivil to use that phrase?

           

           

           

        8. Ron Oertel

          What do you see in *those* areas: racialized poverty concentrated in highly segregated neighborhoods generates violent crime.

          “Racialized poverty” is a construction. In fact, I’ve never even heard this term before. Did it arise out of the same sources that you believe provide some kind of evidence?

          Since you’re suggesting a direct link between poverty and crime, that would provide evidence that those from such communities are, in fact, engaging in more crime. In other words, “checkmate”.

          Do “poor white” areas experience the same level of violent crime?  (I don’t know the answer to that.)

          How about immigrants who arrive in this country with next-to-nothing? Do they engage in the same level of crime as other groups who already have more than they do?

          1. David Greenwald

            This is a helpful piece – a bit dated but still largely applicable –

            Abstract: “Although racial discrimination emerges some of the time at some stages
            of criminal justice processing-such as juvenile justice-there is little
            evidence that racial disparities result from systematic, overt bias.
            Discrimination appears to be indirect, stemming from the amplification
            of initial disadvantages over time, along with the social construction of
            “moral panics” and associated political responses. The “drug war” of the
            1980s and 1990s exacerbated the disproportionate representation of blacks
            in state and federal prisons. Race and ethnic disparities in violent
            offending and victimization are pronounced and long-standing. Blacks,
            and to a lesser extent Hispanics, suffer much higher rates of robbery and
            homicide victimization than do whites. Homicide is the leading cause of
            death among young black males and females. These differences result in
            part from social forces that ecologically concentrate race with poverty and
            other social dislocations. Useful research would emphasize multilevel
            (contextual) designs, the idea of “cumulative disadvantage” over the life
            course, the need for multiracial conceptualizations, and comparative,
            cross-national designs.”

            https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3226952/Sampson_RacialEthnicDisparities.pdf

          2. David Greenwald

            Since I know you’ll ask…

            “The concept of concentrated poverty reflects the fact that while pockets of deep neighborhood poverty can affect the well-being of all residents, they are especially troubling for poor families who already face burdens associated with their low incomes, and who may have fewer housing and neighborhood choices available to them. These challenges disproportionately fall to people of color, and, while they have long been particularly pronounced in inner cities, as poverty has spread beyond the urban core, so too has concentrated disadvantage.”

        9. Ron Oertel

          Regarding the graph, I didn’t ask “who” had higher rates (e.g., percentages) of poverty.

          I asked if some groups commit more crimes than other groups, regardless of experiencing poverty.  In other words, comparing differences in crime rates between groups that are experiencing poverty.

          Blacks,and to a lesser extent Hispanics, suffer much higher rates of robbery andhomicide victimization than do whites. Homicide is the leading cause ofdeath among young black males and females. These differences result inpart from social forces that ecologically concentrate race with poverty andother social dislocations. Useful research would emphasize multilevel(contextual) designs, the idea of “cumulative disadvantage” over the lifecourse, the need for multiracial conceptualizations, and comparative,cross-national designs.”

          Regarding the quote above, are “social forces and dislocations” defined and quantified, in regard to the impact on crime? (Or more accurately, the “association” with crime?)

          And, was the suggested “useful research” ever performed?

          This sounds very much like an acknowledgement of differences in crime rates between different groups (skin colors), and very close to what conservatives point out.  Isn’t that the opposite of what you (and those like you) generally claim?

          1. David Greenwald

            “This sounds very much like an acknowledgement of differences in crime rates between different groups (skin colors), and very close to what conservatives point out. Isn’t that the opposite of what you (and those like you) generally claim?”

            As I explained to Keith, the drug example is instructive because it shows what happens at the systemic level in a case where both Blacks and whites do not have disparate numbers of crimes. It’s a form of natural experiment. I don’t make a generalized claim on the differential crime rates, but I do make the claim that racial bias is itself endogenous to crime rates. In other words, racial bias itself underlies crimes rates therefore you do not escape racial explanations by claiming that Blacks commit more crime. You have to understand the interplay between race and concentrated poverty and then concentrated poverty and crime to understand the dynamics.

        10. Ron Oertel

          And by the way, why were Asians left out of that graph?

          Should we also assume (for the moment) that groups such as Native Americans were lumped-in there, somewhere?

          Does any of this provide cause for concern regarding the creators and motivations behind that graph?

          I haven’t read the other article you referenced so far, but I’m already wondering if similar concerns are evident in that document.

        11. Ron Oertel

          As I explained to Keith, the drug example is instructive because it shows what happens at the systemic level in a case where both Blacks and whites do not have disparate numbers of crimes.

          This is another area where I don’t automatically accept the claim, or at least not all of it.  Nor do I know how many people are in prison, exclusively for “drug crimes”.

          But again, the subsequent article you cited notes this, which is different than “drug crimes”.  (At least, not the use of drugs in regard to differences between skin colors.)

          (From cited article): Race and ethnic disparities in violent offending and victimization are pronounced and long-standing. Blacks, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, suffer much higher rates of robbery and homicide victimization than do whites. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black males and females. These differences result in part from social forces that ecologically concentrate race with poverty and other social dislocations.

          David: It’s a form of natural experiment. I don’t make a generalized claim on the differential crime rates, but I do make the claim that racial bias is its endogenous to crime rates.

          Again, you haven’t presented support for that claim, nor do I know what you mean by “natural experiment”.  (I’ve already suggested a “natural experiment” to you, regarding venturing into dangerous areas.)  The article you cited notes enormous differences regarding skin color.
          It’s easy to talk about this stuff from the comfort of a place like Davis (so far, at least). 

          It’s an intellectual exercise for people like you, unlike the “lived experience” of those who have to deal with it.

          In other words, racial bias itself underlies crimes rates therefore you do not escape racial explanations by claiming that Blacks commit more crime.

          Yes, you “do” – according to the article you cited.  Also, it’s not an “escape” – it’s a reality.

          You have to understand the interplay between race and concentrated poverty and then concentrated poverty and crime to understand the dynamics.

          Terrific – let us know when anyone claims that they understand this, with any degree of actual evidence.  (Other than noting the skin color of those incarcerated, which is not “evidence” of it.)

          “Experts” have been talking about this issue for decades.  However, releasing convicts from prison (or not prosecuting them in the first place) based upon skin color is something “new”.  It is difficult for me to fathom that anyone (let alone a potential prosecutor) would put this forth as a “solution”.

          Also, let us know when the “experts” address Asians.

        12. Ron Oertel

          And rather than exploring “elephant in the room” issue (e.g., the impact of crime in those communities), you choose the much-easier route of amplifying the litigious voice of the much-smaller number of people impacted by questionable police actions. Some of which appears to have almost no merit.

          In terms of ease and payoff, it’s the difference between covering a sporting event, vs. covering a war.  You essentially have an entire industry that’s helping you, regarding your choice of coverage. But it’s not really “news”.

          You’ve also (accidentally) timed your entry into that field at a most opportune time. Congratulations. Though I suspect that this time in the spotlight will be replaced by concern regarding crime, as it always inevitably is. (But, the industry behind it will survive, nationwide – keeping the Vanguard alive.)

           

           

  3. Eric Gelber

    It is just as likely (if not MORE likely) that it is a result of differences in crime rates between different groups.

    Do you mean “crime rates” or arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates?

    What do you attribute disparities in rates to—genetics?

    1. Ron Oertel

      Do you mean “crime rates” or arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates?

      That’s where it gets complicated, for those who believe that the “entire” system is racist.

      What do you attribute disparities in rates to—genetics?

      Personally, I attribute (most of the disparity) to be due to differences in crime rates.  I don’t have an answer for you, beyond that.

      But I don’t advocate for releasing criminals, simply because one group experiences a higher percentage of consequences from the “system”.

      For that matter, I doubt that white people experience the lowest levels of consequences from the system.  If I had to guess, it would probably be Asians (though as with all other groups, there are differences within that umbrella group).

       

  4. Bill Marshall

    Civility is waning on this thread. [Moderator]

    You can’t possibly mean the poster who has posted 9 times today on this thread, and has had nothing but civil, substantive comments!?!

    Of course ‘moderation’ will kill this puppy in the next hour…

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