By Christopher C. Hite
Guest Commentary, Contra Costa Times
Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark A. Peterson’s rebuke of Public Defender Robin Lipetzky for bringing up racial disparities in the criminal justice system evokes a famous line from Hamlet. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The (prosecutor) doth protest too much, methinks.”
Peterson’s angry, multi-page letter and press release in response to Bay Area public defenders holding “Black Lives Matter” rallies claims there is no racism in the criminal justice system, at least in Contra Costa County.
But his claim ignores overwhelming statistical evidence showing African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be arrested, convicted and more harshly sentenced than their white counterparts.
Peterson’s missive reads like a frightening laundry list of preconceived notions that stand in the way of equal justice under the law.
He boldly asserts that all decisions by police officers, district attorney, and judges are race neutral. He offers that the reason behind more black people in prison is because they are committing more crimes against other black people.
But decades of studies show otherwise. Blacks and Latinos make up 58 percent of all prisoners yet only 25 percent of the American population. Despite similar drug usage rates across all races, people of color are more likely to be prosecuted and receive harsher sentences for a drug-related crimes.
In 2012, economists and law professors at Harvard, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania published a study that found black defendants receive longer prison sentences than their similarly situated white counterparts.
They also determined that African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested than white Americans, that “judges take race into account in their sentencing decisions” and that “the magnitude of this effect is substantial.” The statistics go on.
Peterson also seems to think that the high rate of black-on-black crime somehow is different from that of white-on-white crime rate. It is not.
Whites kill other whites at a rate of 84 percent. Furthermore, that there is a high black-on-black crime rate does nothing to diminish the fact that young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.
The demonstrations across the country, including those held by Bay Area public defenders, are a response to this stark disparity. Bringing up black-on-black crime is a distraction from the real work of improving our justice system.
The first step to eliminating racial disparities is recognizing the problem and being willing to address it.
In San Francisco, the district attorney is taking a proactive approach by partnering the Vera Institute to conduct an internal evaluation of how race affects charging decisions.
The San Francisco Public Defender is engaged in a similar study with the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School to examining everything from traffic stops to plea agreements.
If Peterson truly cares about eliminating racism, he should do the same.
An independent, objective, and comprehensive study would go a long way in determining whether or not there is room for improvement.
Christopher C. Hite is a deputy public defender in San Francisco and co-chair of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee.