In 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill, AB 2778, meant to reduce racial bias in the criminal legal system by requiring prosecutors’ offices to implement “race-blind” charging practices starting January 1, 2025.
This means that a prosecuting agency will need to redact from a case any information that would identify the race of those involved, including any victims or witnesses. Then, the agency must assign a prosecutor without knowledge of the blacked-out information to perform the initial charging evaluation. After that, prosecutors must conduct a second evaluation using unredacted case files. If prosecutors decide to change the charging decision upon reading an unredacted case file, documentation of the change, and an explanation must become part of the case record.
Prosecuting agencies will be allowed to exclude certain types of cases from this race-blind procedure, including homicides, hate crimes, gang-related crimes, and domestic violence and sex crimes.
Local prosecutors will also need to collect data resulting from the race-blind charging process, and “make the data available for research purposes.”
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office sponsored the bill after piloting a race-blind charging system in May 2021, modeled after a similar undertaking in San Francisco by then-DA George Gascón. The Stanford Computational Policy Lab (SCPL) designed a custom algorithm for the SF and Yolo DAs to automatically redact race-identifying information from police reports.
“In recent years, the increasing availability of data regarding criminal justice has raised legitimate questions regarding racial disparities in how cases are investigated, charged, and prosecuted,” the Yolo DA’s Office wrote in support of AB 2778. “In particular, studies suggest that unknowing or ‘unconscious’ bias may infect many decisions within the criminal justice system, despite what may be the best intentions of the actors involved.”
AB 2778 required the California Attorney General to issue a set of guidelines at the beginning of 2024 for implementing these changes across the state by the start of 2025.
Attorney General Rob Bonta issued those “race-blind” charging guidelines on January 4, 2024, directing agencies to implement the rules laid out in AB 2778.
“Unfortunately, we know the criminal justice system is not infallible and charging decisions are vulnerable to unconscious bias. This is a reality we cannot ignore and must work to correct,” said AG Bonta. “These guidelines will help prosecutors perform their duties in accordance with California law and most importantly, help promote a more fair and equitable charging process for all individuals.”