County supervisors approve task force to combat criminal justice racial disparities

Last Tuesday, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors took a step towards examining racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice system. At the Board of Supervisors meeting on April 12, the board unanimously approved the formation of a Disproportionate Minority Contact Task Force, comprised of county leaders. The approved proposal states that the purpose of the group is to “identify some consensus measures within the County to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” and to implement those measures and report back to the board. The approval has no immediate fiscal impact but mentions future funding for an outside facilitator and research partner.

In making its decision, the board considered county data requested by the Public Protection Committee in 2015 following requests from the Contra Costa County Racial Justice Coalition (CCCRJC), which describes itself on its website as “organizations and individuals committed to eliminating racial inequalities in Contra Costa.” The data, based on census estimates, includes a racial breakdown of the total county population compared with the representation of people of different ethnicities who interacted with the criminal justice system between 2010 and 2014. The data shows that African Americans and Latinos in Contra Costa County were prosecuted in more criminal cases, more likely to be on probation and less likely to serve on juries than their white counterparts.

One of the more glaring statistics shows that while African Americans make up 9.6 percent of the total county population, they represent 41 percent of the juvenile probation population.

Another shows that while Latinos make up 24.9 percent of the county’s total population, their representation on juries was only 14.9 percent.

Supervisor John Gioia, who represents District 1, which includes Richmond, said he was hopeful that the task force could recommend and implement meaningful solutions like improving the jury selection process to increase minority representation, providing more job opportunities for young people, and providing more alternatives to incarceration. But he said that racial disparity is a complex problem in the criminal justice system that won’t be solved overnight. “I think it’s important to approach the issue where we’re not pointing fingers at anyone, but acknowledging that everyone is a part of the issue and can be part of solution. I think we have a good positive start by having diverse departments working together,” he said.

The approval of the task force is a result of organizing efforts by the CCCRJC, which formed after a heated public debate in 2014 between public officials over whether or not race plays a role in the criminal justice system locally.

In December, 2014, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the beginning of Black Lives Matter, Contra Costa Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky and several dozen others assembled on the steps of the county Superior Court in Martinez holding a banner that read: “Black Lives Matter to Public Defenders.” Lipetzky made a brief statement, captured in a YouTube video uploaded by The Mercury News. In the video Lipetzky says, “We here in the Public Defender’s Office walk through these halls of justice day in and day out and we see the immediate effects of the disparate treatment on our clients. We see it in the fact that people of color are underrepresented on our juries and they are overrepresented in our jails.” Lipetzky and Deputy Public Defender Brandon Banks also spoke of the disproportionate effects that sentencing and bail setting can have on people of color.

In response, Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson sent a fiery open letter to Lipetzky accusing her and Banks of spreading false information and stating: “We don’t consider race in our charging decisions.  We file the charges supported by the evidence, against whoever committed the crime, no matter their race.” Peterson’s letter goes on to say, “We train, teach, and practice the notion of colorblind justice, because all lives matter.” The full text of Peterson’s letter is available on the CBS San Francisco website.

The CCCRJC formed shortly after and has been pushing county leadership to acknowledge racial disparities and to take action. Deputy Public Defender Jeff Landau, a member of the coalition, wrote in an email to Richmond Confidential that the formation of the task force “is a real chance to bring key stakeholders together, to examine the systems that chronically fail people of color in our community, and to make changes that will reduce racial disparities.” Landau added that the creation of the task force is an initial step, and “there must be meaningful community involvement at every stage of the process as well as adequate funding for facilitation and analysis in order for the Task Force to make lasting change.”

Lipetzky is not a member of the CCCRJC, but said that attorneys in her office have been involved with the coalition on an individual basis. She said that the formation of the task force represents progress. “We want to be at the forefront of trying to solve this problem, and it is very hearting that it was a unanimous and serious decision,” she said told Richmond Confidential in an interview this week.

Lipetzky echoed Supervisor Gioia in not wanting to blame individuals or agencies, but to acknowledge that a problem exists, and to start working on solutions. “We need to have a process to get together and roll up our sleeves and think of ways to improve the situation,” she said.

Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson said that he is prepared to participate in the process but that he remains skeptical that disparities exist because of overt racism in the criminal justice system. “We’re open to looking at if we could be doing things differently,” Peterson said. He added, “Some people have made their minds up that these numbers are the way they are because of racism, but there may be other factors.” Peterson noted that individuals from communities with failing schools and fewer job opportunities are more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

Although Lipetzky and Peterson have publicly shared different perspectives on the role of race in the criminal justice system, they will both serve on the task force to address that very issue. Their offices have already collaborated with the county’s Chief Probation Officer to propose the composition of the group. Their proposal designates a 15-member group including department heads and representatives from organizations involved with criminal justice. In addition to themselves, the three department heads suggested that the task force include, the county sheriff, representatives from the county’s Superior Court, a local law enforcement member to be named by the Contra Costa County Police Chiefs Association, up to three representatives from local school districts, and representatives from the county Department of Health and community organizations.

The recently sworn-in Richmond Chief of Police, Allwyn Brown, said he supports the countywide effort. The Richmond Police Department has been widely praised for bringing down the city’s crime rate over the last decade while also improving relationships between community members and police.

Brown said that all officers on the police force go through bias training and that it has been helpful. “It doesn’t matter your background, everyone has biases. They can seep into people’s decision making process and there has to be greater awareness,” Brown said.

The chief also said that the law enforcement representatives on the task force would provide local knowledge and a ground-level perspective. “Raw numbers rarely show the whole picture; we can provide context,” he said.

Carole Yu-Johnson is a Richmond resident and activist who is involved with several community organizations including Ceasefire, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community (CCISCO), Safe Return and Mothers in Charge. Yu-Johnson hopes to serve on the task force and says that the representatives from community-based organizations will play an important role.

“Contra Costa County is basically a conservative pro-law enforcement community, so the community organizations provide a strong community voice to balance the task force,” Yu-Johnson said. She also said she feels the Richmond Police Department is showing signs of progress. She said the department is not perfect, but overall there is more trust between the community and the police today than in previous years. “If we can adopt that a county level, that would be excellent,” she said.

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