Commentary: Scientific Justice

By Christopher Bryson

According to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, The Stanford University Computational Policy Lab has developed an innovative tool for maintaining balance on the scales of criminal justice. The lab’s executive director, Alex Chohlas-Wood worked to address concerns that prosecutors may harbor implicit or explicit bias when determining whether to charge a suspect with a crime and which charge fits the facts of the crime.

The “race-blind charging program” utilizes a redaction technology that prevents prosecutors from viewing a suspect’s name and hair color, race of the suspect and victim, neighborhood in which that crime occurred, and the responding officer’s name. The Yolo County District Attorney’s office reached out to Chohlas-Wood after a concept demonstration in 2019. Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Resig plans to implement the program countywide and allow the community to view how the program affected decisions related to charging crimes by reporting relevant data through a “transparency portal.” Resig’s office also worked with a citizen advisory group called the multicultural community council (MCC). The group’s chair, Tessa Smith said, “This is what trust and accountability look like, what transparency looks like. This is how trust and relationships are but between a district attorney’s office and the community that it serves. We know that color can color perception of what is true, what is just, and what is equitable…”

Mule Creek State Prison inmate Robert Mansfield said of the program, “More counties need to apply it. It allows the criminal justice system to be fair and legit. I’m from San Bernadino County, and it’s very race based profiling.” Another MCSP inmate, Ajay Dev, was arrested in Yolo County and has been fighting his case for 12 years based on an actual innocence claim. Dev said, “This is a good thing. The stereotypes are a major problem in the criminal justice process.”

Certain crimes are exempted from inclusion in the program, such as homicide, domestic violence, and sex crimes. According to Supervising Deputy District Attorney Carolyn Palumbo, exclusionary criteria is based on her office’s intention on evaluating a suspect’s rap sheet prior to charging certain crimes. City of Davis Deputy Police Chief Paul Dorshov said, “We believe in this program and we believe in anything that will help eliminate bias from the system.” Moving toward that ultimate goal, Chohlas-Wood described another function of the race-blind charging program, “Our next strategy is to try to select officers that have clear historical evidence of disparate treatment in the charging decisions so we can see if it actually reduces it.”

This redaction technology is a glimpse into the potential future of criminal justice. Is it possible that one day a set of facts and circumstances about a crime will be able to be input into a computer and have the computer itself determine appropriate action? Or even further, a trial that has a computer generate its own examination and cross-examination questions of a defendant on the stand using its unbiased and infallible memory? For now, this tool is a method to allay concerns of impropriety in the charging of criminal defendants, entrusted into the capable hands of the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office to demonstrate to the rest of the country.

Christopher Bryson is a staff writer for the Mule Creek Post, a newspaper produced by incarcerated journalists at Mule Creek State Prison in Lone, California.

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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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