I read with interest the article in the Independent about the June 15 presentation that Chief Heitman, Chief Melekian, and Ms. Milligan made to the Board of Supervisors regarding Ethnic and Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System. I subsequently watched the video of the meeting.
In their presentation, they presented an RRI (Relative Rate Index) model as a way of determining if there are racial/ethnic disparities in the system. The results presented stated that, at various points in the system, youth of color are between 1.4 and 2.6 times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than white youth. They reported that these ratios were of significant concern and merited further investigation to see why they were occurring.
I would like to point out another significant disparity in the system that was not discussed. The ratio of disparity regarding presence in the County Jail for two important groups is over 5.6! If a range of 1.4 – 2.4 is of serious concern, 5.6 is a “hair on fire” result.
The two groups for which the measured RRI is 5.6 are women and men. Men are over 5.6 times as likely as women to be in the County Jail although they have essentially equal representation in our county population. I submit that this statistic calls into question the whole methodology of disparate impact being used by the RR1 analysis. No one I know of would suggest that our criminal justice system is biased against men. Men simply commit more crimes than women do. Why? There are complicated environmental and genetic causes at play. The disparate impact analysis yields absolutely no data about why this is true. But no one I have ever read or heard attributes the difference to prejudice. Our society simply accepts this reality and is not shaken by the disparate number of men in jails and prison relative to women.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of measuring his children by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. The disparate impact analysis totally ignores character and its resulting behavior as a cause of being involved in the criminal justice system. It assumes that a single unchangeable characteristic — the color of one’s skin and/or ethnic heritage — is the determining factor. Limiting the analysis to these two variables — skin color and the functioning of the criminal justice system — limits our ability to understand or predict any cause and effect.
I submit that the RRI data presented suggests that youth of color commit more crimes than white youth. However, I do not believe we should simply accept this reality as we do with men vs. women. We need to ask: “Why is this the case?” I haven’t seen any data that indicates the criminal justice system itself is to blame. We need to look into the root causes of this disparity. I suggest an analysis be done to answer the following questions about youth without regard to their skin color:
• Are youth from single-parent families disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system?
• Are youth whose parents have been previously involved in the criminal justice system disproportionally represented?
• Are youth who are participating in gangs disproportionately represented?
• Are students who are not succeeding in school disproportionately represented?
• Are youth who are living below poverty disproportionately represented?
• Are youth with multiple offenses disproportionately represented?
• Does the severity of the crime the youth is accused of affect who is involved in various points in the criminal justice system?
I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list of relevant analyses that could be done. Answers to these questions would provide real data to analyze that could result in directing resources to help reduce criminal activity. Perhaps these are the kind of “next steps” the RRI team is proposing. If so, I’m all for it. In fact, I think they should have started here. The disparate impact analysis presented does not provide any real data that can lead to solutions to reduce crime. All it does is reinforce the idea that the criminal justice system is racially biased.
Research shows a fundamental cause of criminal activity is criminal thinking. Evidence-based programs aimed at reducing recidivism are focused on reducing/eliminating criminal thinking. Our preventive measures should be focused on the same goal — creating environments and programs where criminal thinking is prevented and/or reduced.