San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced on Tuesday the creation of a unit to closely examine police booking charges for signs of racial bias.
Adachi created the team in response to a study (also released Tuesday) that the San Francisco Police Department and other booking agencies chose more serious charges for people of color than their white counterparts at the initial booking stage.
Adachi’s Pretrial Release Unit will be comprised of two deputy public defenders and one investigator, and will launch on October 1.
The public defender modeled the new team after a Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office program that provides early representation to inmates. The unit reviews arrest data, investigates cases, and argues, when appropriate, for reduced bail and releases on recognizance, “to better serve clients between arrest and arraignment, reduce costs associated with pre-trial incarceration and begin critical case preparation.”
The SF team’s focus will be between arrest and arraignment, and will consist of examining police reports and performing other analyses to determine when cases have been overcharged. When the group finds instances of overcharging, it will argue in favor of reduced bail or pretrial release without bail for affected defendants.
“The Pretrial Release Unit is preventive care for a system infected with bias,” Adachi said. “Instead of trying to stamp out the problem once it has taken hold, we will step in right after booking, start our investigation, and file a bail motion within eight hours.”
In San Francisco, racial disparities abound at the booking stage of a criminal case, according to the report from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.
When police arrest an individual, officers submit a charging request to the district attorney, who then looks at the information available, including criminal history, and recommends charges. For defendants who cannot afford their own attorney, a public defender is provided, but not until arraignment, after the prosecutor has already recommended charges.
“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,” the report reads.
Researchers looked at 10,753 records for cases between 2011 and 2014 handled by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The study is significant, in that researchers that look at racial disparities in the court system often focus on case outcomes, rather than earlier opportunities for racism, like the booking process.
The report showed that black defendants are held in pretrial detention for 30 days, on average—62% longer than white defendants. Overall, it takes an average of 90 days for black defendants’ cases to be resolved—14% longer than white defendants’ cases (77.5 days).
And black defendants are convicted of more serious crimes than their white counterparts. Black people are convicted of 60% more felony charges than white defendants, and 10% fewer misdemeanors, according to the report. Additionally, black defendants receive sentences that are an average of 28% longer than white defendants.
“Overcharging cases has real, human consequences,” Adachi said. “Today’s booking charges turn into tomorrow’s criminal histories, preventing people from achieving their potential in life.”