ACLU Reports Call on Sacramento and Merced DAs to Halt Costly, Ineffective Policies that Fuel Mass Incarceration

Anne Marie Schubert

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – Last week, ACLU of Northern California released two reports detailing how the top prosecutors in Sacramento and Merced Counties have used their authority to pursue policies and practices that contribute to high incarceration rates, vast disparities in charging, and the criminalization of mental illness and poverty.

“Within the criminal legal system, district attorneys wield outsize power over people’s lives. They decide who gets charged with a crime, which charges to bring against an individual, what punishment or rehabilitation to seek, and whether children should be tried as adults,” the report said.

The reports found that Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert and Merced County DA Kimberly Lewis have spent the bulk of their offices’ resources prosecuting low-level crimes.

“These draconian policies have funneled a disproportionate number of Black people into jails and prisons when many of these individuals shouldn’t have been prosecuted at all for such low-level offenses or should have been sent to community-based diversion programs,” the report continued.

“The policy changes that we are calling for have been proven to reduce the likelihood that people will have repeated contact with the criminal legal system, while also reducing crime,” said Yoel Haile, director of the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California.

He added, “It makes absolutely no sense for these DAs to dole out unnecessarily harsh penalties for low-level offenses which increases incarceration rates and leads to soaring costs. Voters can and should hold them accountable.”

Among the key recommendations:

  • End punitive charging and sentencing by discontinuing the criminal prosecution of certain low-level offenses like simple drug possession and trespassing.
  • Adopt a list of low-level offenses such as misdemeanor DUI and petty theft that DAs automatically address through community-based treatment, rather than prosecution.
  • Institute a policy to never transfer a child to adult court and create a policy to proactively seek pre-plea restorative justice diversion for the most common charges for youth.
  • Limit discretionary decisions that lead to racist outcomes by establishing a policy to automatically file so called wobblers (crimes that can be charged as felonies or misdemeanors) as misdemeanors; end the use of sentence enhancements; and publish reliable key metrics on racial disparities in charging and sentencing to improve transparency.

The Sacramento DA, the report found, “filed 97,716 charges between 2017 and 2018. Although Black people represent just 11 percent of Sacramento County residents, they represent 28 percent of people criminally charged by the DA’s office.”

Seventy two percent of offenses were ultimately charged as misdemeanors and 28% as felonies.

“More than half (63%) of all charges were for offenses that should have been diverted or declined to be charged. In comparison, just 3 percent of all charges were for serious or violent offenses,” the report found.

“The Sacramento DA’s office should end overly punitive charging and sentencing practices by… Ending the over-criminalization of low-level offenses by instituting the ACLU’s decline to charge and pre-file diversion lists, which would eliminate roughly 50% of the DA’s caseload,” the report found.  “Advising all prosecutors to presumptively file wobbler charges as misdemeanors; and Ending the use of sentencing enhancements, as San Francisco DA Boudin and Los Angeles DA Gascón have done.”

The report was also critical of Sacramento’s handling of police killings.  There have been 35 such killings since Schubert took over in 2015, “but her office did not file charges in a single instance.”

“Notably, she failed to charge any of the officers involved in the killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man who was shot to death by police officers in his grandmother’s backyard in 2018,” the report said.

“DA Schubert should better hold law enforcement accountable by Supporting the creation of an entity entirely separate from the DA’s office for the purpose of prosecuting cases against law enforcement officials, which will help remove conflicts of interest,” the report recommended.  In addition she should “no longer accept donations from police unions, thereby removing their undue influence on campaign finance.”

The report in Merced found similar problems there.

“Despite the decrease in crime rates associated with COVID-19, DA Lewis filed more charges in 2019 and 2020 than her predecessor did in the previous two years,” the ACLU found. Three quarters of all charges filed by former DA Morse in 2017–18 and DA Lewis in 2019-20 were misdemeanor charges. Furthermore, 62 percent of all charges filed under DA Morse and DA Lewis were for offenses that should be declined to charge or diverted to community-based treatment programs.”

Racial disparities were glaring.

“Under DA Lewis, the Merced DA’s office has begun to track racial demographic information of adults and juveniles charged by their office. Such data collection is crucial to understanding and addressing the drivers of racial disparities throughout the criminal legal system. Although Black people represent less than 4 percent of the Merced County population, 9.23 percent of all adult charges and 17 percent of all juvenile charges were filed against Black people in 2019 and 2020,” the report found.

See the Sacramento County Full Report

See Merced County Full Report

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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