More than two dozen faces stare into a Zoom call, taking in an admission of failure.
“I heard you had a relapse a few days ago,” Dave says.
“Yeah,” Manny responds.
“What did you use?” Dave asks.
“I don’t know what to say about it. It’s – meth and heroine.”
“You still want do to this?” Dave asks.
“I want keep doing what I was doing before this,” Manny says.
“We would like to work with you still. So it’s not over yet,” Dave says. His voice is reassuring, despite the power he holds over Manny and the others listening.
Dave Reed is a judge in Yolo County Superior Court. Manny, whose full name The Globe and Mail is not publishing to protect his privacy, is one of 26 people enrolled in a special judicial program called addiction intervention court.
Among the participants are people charged with felony crimes that include carrying a dirk or dagger, possessing meth, domestic violence, grand theft and assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury. Many would normally be in prison. But addiction court – and a parallel mental health court – seeks to heal and rehabilitate rather than merely incarcerate. It “is a very unique setting,” Justice Reed says. “My role is largely to provide encouragement, to observe and recognize people who are doing well. To try to encourage people who may not be doing as well, but still seem to want to pursue their recovery – without being punitive.”
It’s part of a sweeping effort by California’s Yolo County to rethink how justice is done. The county, a mix of agricultural areas and university campuses, has sought new ways to erase the role of race in the system, undo past injustices and, where possible, keep people out of prison. It has set a goal of diverting 10 per cent of felony crime suspects out of the traditional penal system – and publishes monthly data to show its progress.
For years, the U.S. justice system has been accused of deep bias and a judicial vindictiveness that has put some 2.3 million people behind bars, an incarcerated populace the city of Houston. The spasm of fury that wracked the country after the police murder of George Floyd only further cemented a widespread anger over the injustice of justice in the U.S.
Led by district attorney Jeff Reisig, a former bodybuilder with a buzzcut of snow-white hair, Yolo County has sought to reconsider how justice is done. Some of its approaches are so novel that they exist only in this county of 220,500 people. But in proving what can be effective, this small corner of California is suggesting that change is, at the very least, possible.
At the heart of that effort is data. Mr. Reisig’s office likens its statistics-driven approach to the Moneyball style of sports management.
“We are at the tip of the spear nationally on using data to drive decisions,” Mr. Reisig says. Yolo worked with Measures for Justice, a Rochester, N.Y.-based non-profit, to create and audit an online portal that gives open access to an exhaustive database. It allows anyone with a web browser to parse statistics on cases referred to the prosecutor, cases diverted, the speed at which cases move through the system and the result they achieve.
The information can be sorted by race, age, residence and severity of offence, making it possible to discover that in Yolo, 34 per cent of cases referred to the prosecutor in May, 2021, involved white people, a group that makes up 47 per cent of the county’s population. Prosecutors decided to prosecute 71.3 per cent of cases with white defendants, and 71.2 per cent of cases with people of colour.
“Good, bad or ugly – it’s transparent,” says Will Ferrier, a former Intel manager who is now the district attorney office’s manager of innovation and technology.
Mr. Reisig has decreed that in any meeting, someone must present something from the database. The publicly accessible website is what the office also uses for its internal deliberations.
“What we’re looking at specifically are recidivism rates,” Mr. Reisig says. The office can also “drill down into crime types and individuals and look at disparities – and try to execute on policies and practical actions in the courtroom that help mitigate some of the real failings of the system over the years.”
Mr. Reisig is an unusual figure in justice reform. Growing up as a worker on a flower farm, he began his legal career in agricultural law before joining the district attorney’s office. He was a tough prosecutor, sending people to death row. “And I hope the sentence is carried out,” he says. “On sex crimes, on rape, child molestation – on all the violent crimes, we will go to the mat.”
But “on so many other things, where we just know now that incarceration and punishment is not serving any long-term legitimate purpose, my philosophy is we can do a much better job of restoring people – victims, the offender and the community.”
He is critical of some elements of the progressive agenda. California’s mass release of prisoners at the outset of the pandemic was “dangerous,” he says.
But he has also been vigorous in dismissing past marijuana convictions. He has gone back to cases he once prosecuted to free people whose continued imprisonment he no longer considers just.
And he has sought to confront racial injustice.
This year, his office also brought in software that redacts names and other racial indicators from police reports used by prosecutors to decide whether to proceed with a case. It was developed by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, whose executive director, Alex Chohlas-Wood, likens it to an orchestra holding auditions behind a curtain, or a company removing names from résumés. “You don’t have an ability to understand who somebody is or their ethnic background,” he says.
It’s not a perfect system, since statistically, “even knowing the crime that’s alleged gives you some information as to the race of the person who you’re making the charging decision on,” Mr. Chohlas-Wood says. And interest has come from places that may not need it. San Francisco conducted a test of the technology, but statistics show little historical evidence of disparate racial treatment in who that city’s prosecutors charge. (The historical analysis on Yolo County is not yet complete.)
Software, too, can only do so much. The types of crimes a district attorney chooses to pursue can disproportionately affect a particular racial community. “Blind charging is important, but it’s only one form of discrimination,” Mr. Chohlas-Wood says.
Some of the county’s other programs have been well-intentioned but flawed. Mental health court, for example, have seen a percentage of white participants that is too high, says Tessa Smith, a local Health and Human Services employee who chairs a Multi-Cultural Community Council created by the district attorney’s office. Ms. Smith believes it’s because the opportunity hasn’t been properly described to people skeptical of the system. “We have to change our language on how we present this option to Black and brown people,” she says.
Still, she is encouraged by the change she has seen. With transparent data, advocates and bureaucrats alike now have a common set of information from which to discuss solutions. A revelation that prosecutors have declined to proceed in a high percentage of cases against people of colour has created pressure on police.
None of that makes for a panacea, she notes.
“This situation didn’t happen overnight. This is 400 years in the making,” she says. “But it’s good to get started.”
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