Peoples Coalition forum focuses on addressing racial disparities in criminal justice system

Criminal justice panel
Criminal justice panel
Panelists listen to a question at the IUCC forum held in conjunction with the Peoples Coalition

Implicit bias.  Lack of money.  Bonds.  Fear.  Mental illness.  Unfair plea deals.  These and other factors play into why people of color often find themselves receiving different treatment in the criminal justice system compared to whites.  On June 18 at IUCC, the Peoples Coalition presented a forum focusing on what we can do to address such disparities and level the playing field.  

Panelists included Paul Chrisopoulos (OC senior deputy district attorney); Carline Hahn (deputy public defender, Riverside County); Kimberly LaSalle (private attorney with both DA and public defender experience); Scott Sanders (OC Public Defender’s Office); Darren Thompson (public defender and Juvenile Court supervisor); Sammy Martinez; and Johnathan Hernandez of Santa Ana Unidos (a nonprofit program that combats incarceration).  Together, they presented a fascinating look at the causes and possible solutions to the problem.

Here are some highlights:

All agreed that money was a key factor.  “The voices that speak loudest are the people with the most money,” said Scott Sanders.  “The rich aren’t held accountable to the extent that other people are.  We need to make good defense a priority.”  

But don’t assume that a public defender won’t provide good representation.  “I would be willing to put up our office against any private firm when it comes to representing indigents,” said Public Defender Darren Thompson.  “We have lots of experience, and there are people in the office who can provide specialized advice.” 

“You’ve got to work hard and be committed (to be a public defender),” agreed fellow Public Defender Scott Sanders. “You need to care about indigent work.  Yes, there are some bad ones.  But most of us care deeply.”

The type of bond requested by the judge can make a huge difference.  “The federal system has two bonds – there’s the unsecured bond and there’s the secured bond,” said Caroline Hahn.  “You see the disparity in people with money versus people without it.   Judges often order secured bonds, which are based on property ownership.  Poor people, especially those living here, rarely own homes.  Two defendants committing the same crime can be treated very differently – those who lack funds and property tend to lose out. When you have money, you have opportunities – it matters when you’re arguing before the court.”

“There should be a uniform bail schedule – one that is color blind, where it doesn’t matter about your background,” added Paul Chrisopoulos.

Panelists agreed that there was a lot of implicit bias in the criminal justice system.   “There are so many policies and decisions that are extremely damaging and will strip people of their rights,” said Kimberly LaSalle.  “We are not being honest about racism.  We need to talk about color and race.  There is so much implicit bias.  We masculinize and militarize our police.  We burden them with these things.”

Fear plays an important role as well, said Caroline Hahn. “There’s a lot of fear in the criminal justice system: Fear in my clients who don’t understand the system, who feel they have no control; Fear from judges who are up for election every six years;  Fear from DAs and public defenders who want to keep their jobs. These are societal issues – poverty, racial disparity, and lack of opportunity.  We need to start thinking about how we can help people.  We need to vote, to get more representation.  We need a global resolution, not one isolated to just the criminal justice system.”

What about mental health?  “We are dealing with a mental health crisis, and we need to start treating it that way,” said Johnathan Hernandez.  “Look at what incarceration – especially wrongful incarceration – does to somebody.”

“Mental health programs need to be centralized so resources are more available,” said Kimberly LaSalle.  “We need more education about mental illness so court officials can open their minds to things like PTSD and realize ‘this is what PTSD looks like’ – to learn what the symptomology is so they can recognize it …. Also, people with developmental disabilities are falling through the cracks. We need people in the criminal justice system who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and take a few risks.  I want probation officers and judges to see what’s happening.  There’s a saying that ‘Today’s defendant was yesterday’s victim’ and I agree.”

“I believe that judges in juvenile court understand that juveniles need rehabilitation – they are trying to provide alternatives,” offered Caroline Hahn.  “There are divergent programs not involving the courts.  I think we need a lot of mental health help, because there’s a lot of mental illness out there.  There’s a stigma in Asian-American culture against mental illness, for example.  Children often don’t get help until it’s too late.  If they get treatment early, they can be evaluated and get the services they need.  Plus there’s a paper trail to show the judge that there’s a history of mental illness that needs to be considered.”

What can be done to eliminate wrongful convictions? Scott Sanders, who was involved in uncovering the recent informant scandal in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, believes the office needs to do a better job of disclosing pertinent information.  “None of the law enforcement personnel running the informant program were held accountable for their lack of disclosure.  The real issue is what’s it going to take to see a change?  The DA needs to stand up to law enforcement.  We have an immense problem and we need people (who are withholding information) to pay a price.  30 years of terrible consequences and not one person has been punished.  It’s an enormous problem and we need to keep fighting it one by one.”

Is there a solution?  Panelists were asked about their views on alternative sentences that would avoid the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. “There’s a lot more collaboration between the DAs and public defenders to make sure that kids are not just being locked up,” says Darren Thompson.  “They need more help getting GEDs, getting jobs, getting into college. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go.”

All agreed that the public needs to take an interest and get involved.  “We have 60 people here, we should have 600,” said Scott Sanders.  “The press will be here when we’re so crowded we’re out the door. We need more people to deeply care. No one in law enforcement is scared because no one has held them accountable.  There’s a real lack of outrage.”

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