By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig understands that the ground has shifted on racial justice issues. It was just over a year ago that he was blasting the Public Defender for pointing out the discrepancies in the Yolo County Jail, and now he has once again unveiled another soft criminal justice reform policy.
He was parading out his “race-blind” charging using computer technology developed by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab to redact information that might identify race or ethnicity.
“People across the country have made it clear they want meaningful reform in the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to eliminating the insidious effects of racial bias in all forms,” the DA said this week.
“We believe that this technology has the potential to be an absolute game-changer,” Reisig added. “We would invite prosecutors everywhere to study it and to adopt it. With tools like this, we really can take care of everyone.”
During the press conference, he said that the policy came out of concerns from an advisory group that wanted the DA’s office to address racial biases in charging decisions.
The problem is that this policy, what I would call another soft approach to reform, only addresses inequities that are direct—either conscious or unconscious bias—rather than systemic.
“We know, if we are honest, that we as humans still struggle to look past our visible identities like race,” said Tessa Smith, the chair of the advisory group. “And we know that color can color the perceptions of what is true, what is just and what ethical.”
But is overt bias driving the problem? I would argue that maybe on the margins, but the bigger problem is systemic, and the DA hasn’t touched that.
For years, a cornerstone of Reisig’s policies has been gang enforcement. That’s what he cut his teeth on, he worked hard to get gang grants to fund his office, and to get the gang injunction approved a decade ago in West Sacramento.
Changes are happening on this front as well, but they are not being led by the likes of Jeff Reisig.
This week, AB 333, the STEP Forward Act, which amends and reforms the original STEP Act, passed the legislature.
At a press conference in early September, Senator Sydney Kamlager, the bill’s author, cited the statistic that 92 percent of people with gang enhancements in California are people of color.
Over the years, the Vanguard has covered some really marginal gang cases—all of those were Latino or Black alleged gang members, and many of them did not appear to be gang members at all.
The gang laws are a big problem. Kamlager pointed out that, right now, you do not need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not someone is in a gang.
“So instead of relying on very arcane and lazy tools, let’s ask prosecutors to prove the charges that they’ve levied against someone,” the senator added.
Studies have shown that gang charges and the processes used to show them to be true, in addition to adding more time to a sentence also bias the jury by introducing evidence that has nothing to do with an individual accused of committing the instant offense.
To show evidence of ongoing gang activity, the prosecution is allowed to introduce predicate offenses—gang crimes committed by other people
As San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju pointed out regarding defendants and their families, prosecutors are able to “introduce evidence about something that has nothing to do with their loved ones who are on trial in that particular case.”
He said, “Prosecutors often end up making up for a lack of evidence by trying to substitute fear and name calling for actual reliable evidence.”
While Kamlager is attempting to reform some of this at the state level, individual DAs are taking matters into their own hands and have begun to stop charging gang enhancements.
Last February, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin announced his office would be “ending the use of sentence enhancements that are based on alleged gang affiliation status.”
Chesa Boudin stated that the charges for the actual crimes are presumed to be adequate, and “we do not need to punish people for who they are or what their previous crimes were.”
At a press conference this week, DA George Gascón noted that, in Los Angeles, “we don’t use gang enhancements anymore. We stopped using them.”
He believes science tells them “that enhancements generally create more insecurity in our community.”
Gascón said, “They over-criminalized people based on race, based on economic status.”
If DA Reisig wants to actually address racial inequities, he can do a flashy new policy with new technology that might impact cases on the margins, or he can stop charging enhancements where the policies overwhelmingly impact people of color.
One will produce flashy headlines in the local press and even across the state, the other will actually address racial inequities.