Public Defender Launches Unit to Combat Booking Bias
Police booking charges play an outsized role in creating the San Francisco justice system’s dramatic racial disparities, a new study reveals, prompting San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi to announce today the formation of a team to scrutinize the early charges for bias.
The Pretrial Release Unit, comprised of two deputy public defenders and one investigator, will launch Oct. 1. The team will intervene between arrest and arraignment, reviewing police reports and conducting preliminary investigations to ensure cases have not been overcharged. In appropriate cases, the team will argue for bail reduction or pretrial release. The program, modeled after Miami-Dade Public Defender’s pioneering and money-saving Early Representation Unit, will be only the second program of its kind nationwide. The City of San Francisco has approved funding of $335,557 for the first fiscal year.
The formation of the new unit was prompted by the results of a study by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, released to the public today. The review of 10,753 complete case records between 2011 and 2014 from the Public Defender’s Office revealed that people of color receive more serious charges at the initial booking stage, reflecting decisions by the San Francisco Police Department and other booking agencies. Those booking charges create a ripple effect that follows defendants through the justice system and results in more jail time and more serious convictions for African Americans.
Booking decisions are made by a police officer’s initial impressions, often before all the evidence has been gathered or witnesses interviewed. It is then sent to the district attorney, who recommends charges. Public defenders are not assigned to the case until arraignment, after a person has spent up to five days in custody. This program would allow poor defendants the same access to early representation as defendants who can afford to hire private attorneys.
“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.”
Other key findings of the groundbreaking report show that black defendants are held in pretrial custody for an average of 30 days, or 62 percent longer than whites. Cases involving black defendants also take an average of 90 days to resolve, 14 percent longer than those involving white defendants.
Defendants of color are also convicted of more serious crimes than white defendants, the report found. Black defendants are convicted of 60 percent more felony charges than white defendants and 10 percent fewer misdemeanors. Latino and white defendants have similar felony conviction rates, but Latinos are convicted of 10 percent more misdemeanors and receive probation sentences that are 55 percent longer than whites.
The report found that the ripple effect put in motion by booking charges accounted for 72 percent of the conviction gap between black and white defendants in misdemeanor cases and 46 percent in felony cases. Criminal history accounted for 1 percent and 33 percent, respectively, while demographic and other factors accounted for the rest.
“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.”