Study shows racial disparities in San Francisco criminal justice system have decreased since 2014

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While still markedly present, racial disparities in San Francisco’s criminal justice system have narrowed significantly since the 2014 implementation of Proposition 47, according to an independent review published by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office Thursday.

The review was conducted by UC Berkeley public policy professor Steven Raphael and University of Pennsylvania criminology and sociology professor John MacDonald after Proposition 47 advocate District Attorney George Gascón requested that they do so.

Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, passed in 2014. The law reduced six nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, resulting in a 5 percent drop of Black individuals being booked into county jail in criminal cases.

According to a press release issued Thursday, the study was part of the DA office’s mission to better understand the problems facing the criminal justice system in order to take steps to resolve them.

“Our nation’s history makes the issue of race and justice an emotionally charged topic,” Gascón said in the release. “But if we are going to work towards a justice system that is more fair and equitable we must look within to see what we can do to level the playing field.”

According to the review, the goal of the study was to look into what causes racial and ethnic disparities in the outcomes of criminal cases prosecuted by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, or SFDA.

Researchers used administrative data from the SFDA case management system, data on jail admission and release from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, and statewide criminal history data from the California Department of Justice.

The case reached five principle conclusions, among them that racial and ethnic disparities in those arrested in the city and county of San Francisco tend to favor white suspects over Black, Hispanic, and Asian suspects.

The study also concluded that pre-trial detention and criminal history at the time of arrest place Black individuals at a greater disadvantage than white individuals. The implementation of Proposition 47, however, narrowed racial disparities by reducing the effect of pre-trial detention and criminal history in determining case outcomes, according to the study.

“While the importance of (pre-trial detention and prior criminal history) have diminished, they still predict worse outcomes even after accounting for the characteristics of the underlying offense,” the study said.

The study concluded by saying that research indicated that poverty can have an effect on sentencing outcomes even if it is unrelated to the underlying offense in a way that affects Black defendants in particular.

“This report shows that there is much more work to be done, but that Proposition 47 has already played an instrumental role in narrowing racial disparities in San Francisco’s criminal justice system,” Gascón said in the release.

Kate Tinney is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @K_Tinney.

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