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Study finds SF police are root of racial bias in criminal justice system

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Minority arrestees receive more serious charges when initially booked, based on previous encounters with the criminal justice system, a new report has found. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)
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In San Francisco, black people are held in jail longer than whites, their cases take longer, they are convicted of more serious crimes and they serve longer sentences.

So says a recent study by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The root of this disparity is not prosecutors or the courts. Instead, the study found it is mostly in the hands of police, who book black and minority defendants on more severe charges when they are jailed.

Once defendants are booked with the more severe charges, the rest of their cases are impacted as they move through the courts, according to the study. It added that the adverse impact of overbooking on minority arrestees was also a result of criminal records.

“People of color receive more serious charges at the initial booking stage, based on previous encounters with the criminal justice system in San Francisco County,” reads the study, titled

“Examining Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes among Indigent Defendants in San Francisco.”

The study continues, “This criminal history has a ‘ripple effect’ that impacts plea negotiations for subsequent charges, as police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys make plea bargain decisions based in part of the individual’s prior criminal history.”

By looking at everything from plea bargaining to booking charges, the study sheds light on an often opaque process in the courts before defendants go to trial.

With these new findings, the Public Defender’s Office hopes to help close this gap by creating a pretrial unit that will address booking issues before a formal charge is brought. As it stands, defense attorneys know nothing about a case or client until a charge has been filed by prosecutors, who can only work with the evidence provided to them by police.

“We want to be able to get to the root of the problem,” said Public Defender’s Office spokesperson Tamara Aparton, who added that, at this point, there is no formal plan for such a unit.

While the study found some disparities across the board in the court system, most of them started with the booking process.

When a police officer arrests someone, that person is booked into County Jail. Each suspect is booked on the suspicion of a crime, which is then reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office.

The District Attorney’s Office has 48 hours to make a charging decision. That call is made before the arraignment and can include a variety of outcomes, including dropping the charges or adding new charges.

“The additional felonies that are added by the District Attorney’s Office to the cases of black defendants can be explained by differences in police booking decisions. There appear to be certain booked charges made by the police that are more likely to cause an assistant district attorney to add further charges,” reads the study.

The study found that black arrestees face 50 percent more severe charges than whites upon being booked. But no similar disparity existed when it comes to how charges are added by prosecutors.

Prosecutors don’t look at race when they make charging decisions, according to District Attorney’s spokesperson Max Szabo. “Prosecutors review the evidence in charging decisions, not race,” said Szabo, who added that the DA is concerned about any racial disparities.

The study reviewed 10,753 cases involving the Public Defender’s Office from 2011 to 2014 to understand the pretrial process and how it impacts different low-income defendants.

Among the main findings are that, on average, a black defendant spends 30 days in jail, which is 62 percent longer than the average white defendant. An average black defendant’s case takes 90 days but a white defendant’s is only 77.5 days, a 14 percent difference.

When it comes to felony convictions, black defendants are 60 percent more likely to be convicted than whites, according to the report. Black defendants are also convicted of 10 percent fewer misdemeanors than whites. Latinos, meanwhile, are convicted of a similar number of felonies as whites, but 10 percent more misdemeanors.

“Unfortunately, it mirrors that demon again of racist politics, policing and practices that’s alive kicking and doing well in this city,” the Rev. Amos Brown, San Francisco’s NAACP president, said of the study. “We are just as guilty of racist public policies and practices as the deep south. The only difference in the deep south is a tendency for people to be more blunt and overt with it.”

The findings and conclusions of the Public Defender’s Office study were disputed by David Stevenson, a department spokesperson.

“Our officers charge individuals based on the elements of the crime(s) present. The standard for an arrest is based upon probable cause,” wrote Stevenson in a statement. “Whether a case moves forward or not depends on the District Attorney’s Office ability to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The study mirrors several previous looks at how San Francisco law enforcement seem to overly police people of color, especially black people.

In an August 2015 police data release on arrests, nearly half of all arrests made by police in The City were black people.

In July 2016, the District Attorney’s Office launched a three-judge Blue Ribbon Panel on bias in the department. The panel found that racial bias exists in the department.

According to police use-of-force data first released in August 2016, police were found to use force in San Francisco far more on black people than any other groups. Later that year in October, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services released its review of the department, which found troubles with bias, among other things.

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