Sunday Commentary: If Reisig Wants to Fix Racial Inequities Start with Gang Enhancements

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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30 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    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.

    And what percentage of crimes committed by gang members are people of color?

      1. Keith Olsen

        If 92% of gang members are made up of people of color than 92% of gang enhancements falls right in line.

        Why is it worse if a gang member commits a crime than if a non-gang member commits the same crime?

        That’s a whole other question.

        1. David Greenwald

          No it’s not. That’s the entirety of the issue. You have created an enhancement that is based on who someone is which is concurrent with them being people of color and that categorization helps perpetuate racial inequities in the system. Is there an objective basis to say if I rob a store and I’m a gang member I am committing a worse crime than if I’m not?

        2. Ron Oertel

          Is there an objective basis to say if I rob a store and I’m a gang member I am committing a worse crime than if I’m not?

          Maybe, in regard to recidivism.

          Have you looked at the statistics regarding that?

          There are gangs of brazen shoplifters, for example, in San Francisco.  They are being directed by an organization (gang).

          There are motorcycle clubs which could fall into the same designation. Been around for decades (and some consist primarily of “white” people, for that matter).

          I understand that gangs predominate in prison, as well.

          1. David Greenwald

            Recidivism is handled separately from gang enhancements. The base crime however is the same whether you are part of a gang or not. And if you do something “brazen” that is conduct and can be charged as such.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Recidivism is handled separately from gang enhancements. 

          You didn’t answer my question, in regard to higher risk of recidivism for gang members.  Are there statistics regarding that?

          What do you suppose the (original) reason was for gang enhancements?

          If there’s a gang “enhancement”, that pretty much prevents recidivism (outside of prison, at least).

        4. Ron Oertel

          Still not answering the question.

          Statistically, do gang members have a higher rate of recidivism than non-gang members?

          Also, what do you think was the original reason/justification behind gang enhancements?

          1. David Greenwald

            This is what drives me nuts. If you want additional information, you need to research it yourself. If you want my opinion, I gave you my opinion. My opinion is that recidivism is a huge problem in the system, it marks a failure of our system and we need to do a much better job if we want to lower it. We have also sorts of additional penalties when people commit more crimes – in my view they don’t work very well because we aren’t addressing the core issue, but we do have them and don’t need a gang enhancement to address it.

            “Also, what do you think was the original reason/justification behind gang enhancements?”

            People were scared (poop)less of gangs in the 80s and early 90s and they passed the STEP Act.

        5. Keith Olsen

          I think gang enhancements work at discouraging kids and others from joining gangs.  It’s kind of like tax enhancements on gasoline in order to persuade drivers to use less or to switch to electric, progressives are all for those types of enhancements.

          Anyway, does anyone really have a problem with gang enhancements when killings like these are taking place daily in Chicago?

          https://abc7chicago.com/chicago-shooting-shootings-today-violence/11015200/

        6. Keith Olsen

          i don’t think there is ANY evidence of that and there is a lot of evidence that they don’t.

          I gave you my opinion, if you want additional information to prove me wrong you need to research it and show the data.

  2. Ron Oertel

    This is what drives me nuts. If you want additional information, you need to research it yourself. If you want my opinion, I gave you my opinion.

    You’re the one advocating for the elimination of gang enhancements.  If you’re going to take that position, I would think that you might want to address the topic more fully, rather than just noting the disparate outcomes.  Otherwise, you’re just preaching to people already on board with your view.

    My opinion is that recidivism is a huge problem in the system, it marks a failure of our system and we need to do a much better job if we want to lower it.

    This is probably where you have an enormous difference in views, compared to those who don’t believe it is society’s responsibility to prevent others from committing crimes.  Especially if they’re not doing so, themselves.

    There are people who believe that this country provide enormous opportunities (already), to avoid a life of crime. (I tend to agree with that.) One piece of evidence I would put forth in support of that is the fact that immigrants tend to succeed upon arrival, from what I can see.

    My (overall) personal opinion is otherwise not nearly as formed (one way or another) as you might believe.  But disparate outcomes is not necessarily my primary concern.  It may be a symptom of broader issues.

    People were scared (poop)less of gangs in the 80s and early 90s and they passed the STEP Act.

    Do you think that there was a legitimate reason for people to be scared?

    1. David Greenwald

      If you want to explore new areas, be my guest, but you need to do the research. I present my views, I’m not a research service for you.

      “This is probably where you have an enormous difference in views, compared to those who don’t believe it is society’s responsibility to prevent others from committing crimes. Especially if they’re not doing so, themselves.”

      That’s exactly the type of view which is why we are where we are.

      “Do you think that there was a legitimate reason for people to be scared?”

      I think there was some basis for fear but a lot was overwrought and driven by sensational coverage. The STEP act was put into place after crime rates were already going down. I see nothing in the data that justifies charging gang crimes more harshly than the same crimes committed by non gang members. We’re still fixing the system from the gang/ crack fears, at one point we were sentencing people 100 times longer for using crack rather than powder cocaine. There is not scientific basis for that disparity, but guess who ends up with the harsher penalty – people of color. I’m sure you think that’s just an accident.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Me:  “This is probably where you have an enormous difference in views, compared to those who don’t believe it is society’s responsibility to prevent others from committing crimes. Especially if they’re not doing so, themselves.”

        You:  “That’s exactly the type of view which is why we are where we are.”

        On that we agree.

        If you want to explore new areas, be my guest, but you need to do the research. I present my views, I’m not a research service for you.

        You’re also not a “convincing presenter”, if that’s your goal.  (Perhaps it’s not.)

        I’m not trying to convince anyone – I’m skeptical as to what you put forth, and the priority of my concerns is different than yours.

        1. David Greenwald

          Honestly do not feel that you are persuadable. The point of this piece was to show that if Reisig wants to address racial inequities, the way he is going about doing so is maybe going to impact things on the margins. You need to change how you charge cases, and he doesn’t seem willing to do so.

  3. Alan Miller

    My opinion is that recidivism is a huge problem in the system, it marks a failure of our system and we need to do a much better job if we want to lower it.

    Or, it might be the fault of the recidivists.  (I don’t think that is so much ‘true’ or ‘false’, but rather determined by one’s worldview).

    If you want to explore new areas, be my guest, but you need to do the research. I present my views, I’m not a research service for you.

    But I thought you believed in evidence-based lived-experiences of anti-racism (that didn’t actually mean anything, I just strung together woke buzzword-pairings).  So you only research those things that support your views:  therefore, not evidence-based, just views.

    That’s exactly the type of view which is why we are where we are.

    Huh?

    at one point we were sentencing people 100 times longer for using crack rather than powder cocaine. There is not scientific basis for that disparity, but guess who ends up with the harsher penalty – people of color. I’m sure you think that’s just an accident.

    I’m not the “I’m” you refer to, and the “I’m” didn’t respond, but for the record (as if there was a record), I am and always have been against the disparate enforcement of crack & cocaine.  While I don’t buy all your arguments on laws being racist strictly because of disparate impact, this is an example of a law that is clearly racist.  For the record (as if there was a record).

    Despite my response however, I do find your reactions to these articles valuable.

    Hope!

    1. David Greenwald

      “But I thought you believed in evidence-based lived-experiences of anti-racism (that didn’t actually mean anything, I just strung together woke buzzword-pairings). So you only research those things that support your views: therefore, not evidence-based, just views.”

      I think there’s a point here. Mine is simply that Reisig rolled out a policy that I don’t think will do anything for racial disparities and I suggested a policy, that others have taken up and evidence that will have a much greater impact. The fact that we have gang enhancements, no evidence that they work, and impact almost exclusively people of color is a huge driver but not the only one of these disparities.

      Is there evidence that gang enhancements work? No.

      If someone wants to add other data to the discussion, that’s great. Do it. Google is pretty easy to use last I checked. But I presented my case.

  4. Ron Oertel

    Honestly do not feel that you are persuadable.

    If there’s a better way to do things, I am always open to that.

    The point of this piece was to show that if Reisig wants to address racial inequities, the way he is going about doing so is maybe going to impact things on the margins.

    I am not uniquely focused on racial disparities.  In fact, I would expect those to occur, much like I expect a higher percentage of males than females to end up in prison, more young people, more white people than Asians, etc.

    Your entire goal seems to be “equity” in results. That’s nowhere near the top of my list. When I hear anyone state that as their primary goal, I view them as borderline nuts, and almost a danger to the community themselves.

    You need to change how you charge cases, and he doesn’t seem willing to do so.

    He’s a district attorney, and his primary duty is keeping the community safe.

    Is there evidence that gang enhancements work? No.

    I know for a fact that if criminals are in prison, they’re not committing crimes on the outside (unless they’re directing others to do so).  I haven’t seen any evidence which contradicts this.
    I

    1. David Greenwald

      “ He’s a district attorney, and his primary duty is keeping the community safe”

      He has several primary duties, one of which is to prosecute cases, but another is to represent the state in criminal matters and do justice. When there are gross inequities in the criminal system on the basis of race, we have to question whether we are doing justice or simply perpetuating the legacy of racism – ie systemic racism. Reisig recognized the need to look at the inequities of the system (that’s this article which you seem to want to talk about everything but) and I pointed out, that in fact his remedy is unlikely to change the problems and pointed toward another avenue that would be more fruitful.

      1. Ron Oertel

        When there are gross inequities in the criminal system on the basis of race, we have to question whether we are doing justice or simply perpetuating the legacy of racism – ie systemic racism. 

        The definition of inequity is “injustice” or “unfairness”.

        https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inequity

        I do not automatically view disparate outcomes as “inequity”, let alone “systemic racism”.

        You apparently do.

        1. David Greenwald

          Right, but I’m not writing this piece in response to you, I’m writing it in response to Reisig who did at least nominally show concern for the issue of racial inequities.

          1. David Greenwald

            “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.

            One of my criticisms of him is he doesn’t seem to understand that the bigger problem is systemic rather than overt racial bias.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Seems to me that your speculation (below) is similar to my speculation:

          One of my criticisms of him is he doesn’t seem to understand that the bigger problem is systemic rather than overt racial bias.

          I don’t believe in automatically attributing disparate outcomes to systemic racism. But this seems to be the unquestioned gospel, for some.

  5. Ron Oertel

    From article, above:  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.”

    I was wondering what the status of the recall effort is, so I thought I’d look it up. (I don’t recall if the Vanguard is continually reporting the status.)

    The news is not completely unexpected. Political consultants have predicted the first recall effort would fail, while the second would succeed simply because of funding, The Examiner previouslyreported.

    The second committee is fronted by politicos Mary Jung, former chair of the local Democratic Party, and Andrea Shorter, a longtime member of the Commission on the Status of Women.

    If the committee is successful, a Boudin recall could appear on the ballot next June.

    https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/first-effort-to-recall-da-boudin-fails-to-gather-required-signatures/

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