Tuesday, September 23, 2014 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — The San Francisco Public Defender’s office has partnered with a national research and policy hub to embark on a broad study to identify racial disparities in San Francisco’s criminal justice system.
The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School will work hand-in-hand with the public defender’s office to gather a broad range of statistics providing insight into drug arrests, traffic stops, plea deals, sentences and bail.
“Public defenders work for equal justice,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said. “The goal of this study is to identify the places in the system where ‘justice for all’ is failing, so we can advance solutions.”
Quattrone Center Executive Director John Hollway said researchers are particularly interested in studying plea agreements, which are used to resolve approximately 95 percent of criminal cases.
“Dozens of people accept plea bargains every day in San Francisco, thousands across the U.S., and no one really knows whether or why similar people might get different plea deals, or to what extent innocent people might be pleading guilty just to speed up the process or because they don’t trust the system to get it right,” said Hollway. “We’re excited to partner with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office to look at data that can provide an objective understanding of this largely unstudied, but hugely important part of our judicial system.”
In the first phase of the study, researchers will examine case data and demographics as well as gather new information. The San Francisco Public Defender and the Quattrone Center expect to release a report of preliminary recommendations based on their findings in approximately one year.
Deputy Public Defender Chris Hite, who co-chairs the San Francisco Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee, says the study’s data will ensure that proposed changes to the system are based on careful research.
“We’re looking forward to working with Quattrone Center and using its research to support improvements to the criminal justice system in order to reduce racial disparities. Among the issues we’ve identified are the way gang, drug, gun and cell phone theft prosecutions are handled in San Francisco,” Chris says.
The 2013 County Jail Needs Assessment issued by the San Francisco Controller’s Office shows deep racial disparities. Just 6 percent of San Francisco residents are African American, but 56 percent of the city’s jail inmates are black. According to a 2013 ACLU report that analyzed federal data, African Americans in San Francisco were 4.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though studies show people of all racial and ethnic background use and sell marijuana at similar rates.
By working with public defenders, researchers hope to learn:
- Whether race is a factor in bail decisions, or decisions to hold people in custody.
- How race affects plea offers and outcomes, and the severity of sentencing.
- In what ways ethnicity, age, employment status, income, neighborhood and arrest location affect outcomes.
- Whether the ethnicity of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney are factors in case outcomes.
- Whether minority defendants are more likely to be detained, arrested and prosecuted for certain types of offenses, such as drug, gun and gang cases.
- Whether race is a factor in the use of strikes or enhancements in the prosecution of cases.
- What policies and procedures or other strategies might address the disparities.