A coalition of public defenders and community organizations in Contra Costa Country that formed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement are hoping to reduce what they claim are racial inequalities in the county’s criminal justice system.
The group, called the Contra Costa County Racial Justice Coalition, is scheduled to meet with the Board of Supervisors’ public protection committee on Monday to discuss a list of six recommendations for the county to implement.
The coalition formed in the wake of a national call to action in response to the deaths of several black men at the hands of white police officers last year, coalition member and Deputy Public Defender Jeff Landau said.
But the group was further catalyzed by District Attorney Mark Peterson’s response to a demonstration held by members of the Public Defender’s Office in Dec. 2014 that called for racial equality in the criminal justice system.
Peterson issued a four-page rebuttal of comments made by Public Defender Robin Lipetzky denying there is systemic racism in the prosecutor’s office.
“We don’t consider race in our charging decisions,” Peterson wrote in December. “Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that these crimes are perpetrated disproportionately by poor people of color, and it’s equally true that these violent crimes are perpetrated disproportionately upon poor people of color.”
Coalition member and Deputy Public Defender Kaylie Simon said many in her office were “outraged” by not only the blatant racism but also the less direct forms of racism they see on a daily basis.
“Rather than the (District Attorney) saying we would recognize that racism, outwardly saying this doesn’t exist and that we’re a colorblind county that’s somehow different from the rest of the country, that solidified what we see and what we feel in the county on a daily basis,” she said.
The group sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors in April asking them to not only formally recognize systemic racism in the county’s criminal justice system but to also take steps to eliminate racial inequalities.
The letter enumerates six steps the county could take to help reduce racism in the justice system, including requiring employees participate in mandatory annual implicit bias training, conducting audits of arrests and prosecutions and generating a public report, and establishing a civilian police review board and civilian police complaint intake.
The letter also calls for restoring parity in compensation between the District Attorney and Public Defender positions, implementing policies and funding programs to increase proportional representation of people of color sitting on juries, and adopting a resolution to “take all necessary measures to reduce systemic and unwarranted racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”
Ensuring that data is collected and the racial inequalities are documented is key to beginning the conversation, said Tamisha Walker, a coalition member and an organizer with the Safe Return Project.
“You need hard data, you need proof and evidence that (racial bias) is happening,” Walker said. “Not only do we have testimonies, but we’ll be able to have statistics and numbers and data to not just prove to Peterson and the county supervisors but to narrate a new story of how our criminal justice system needs to be transformed.”
Coalition members said they are hoping for a receptive audience from the committee members, who would then take the recommendations to the full board for support.
“We hope everyone in the room will be able to recognize that there is racism in the county and to recognize that these recommendations could be something that’s actually helpful,” Simon said. “And, we hope they will listen to the voices of the community and of people of color in the community who have experienced racism in the county’s criminal justice system and take them seriously.”