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