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DA Using Software to Make ‘Race-Blind’ Decisions on Filing Charges

“We basically give them a software package,” said Alex Chohlas-Wood of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab. “Our software package spits out a redacted narrative. It’s essentially acting as a bumper against the use of race in charging decisions.”

Inside the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office recently, prosecutor Carolyn Palumbo was staring at a computer screen, scanning a Davis police report about two brothers who had been in a fight.

Palumbo, a supervising deputy district attorney, has been in charge of deciding what cases to file charges on since January 2020. But this report was different from many she had seen in the past.

There were no names listed of the potential defendant or victim. There was no address listed for where the incident occurred. And there was no indication of either person’s race.

“I don’t know what the location is, it just says ‘location’ in parentheses,” she said. “Normally, I would know the witness’s name, the reporting party. I would know the defendant’s name. ... If you read through this, you’re going to see ‘Defendant 1,’ ‘Defendant 1,’ ‘Defendant 1.’ You’re never going to see his name.”

The idea is to try to remove any bias from the office’s decision-making over whether to file charges in a case, a system Yolo County has been using for months to introduce “race-blind” charging to the office.

The office is the first in California to use such an extensive race-blind charging format, officials said.

District Attorney Jeff Reisig said it’s an offshoot of a training program he began in November 2015 to train prosecutors about implicit bias.

“We’re tackling implicit bias, and we’ve been doing that since 2015 when we were the first office to train all of our prosecutors on implicit bias,” Reisig said in an interview. “This is just the next step. The moment these police reports hit our office, we are making charging decisions without any information at all about the race of the individuals involved, and the idea is we want to eliminate any effects of implicit bias or explicit bias and just make a clean decision. And my hope is that will help instill public confidence in the process and they will know we don’t consider race at all when we make these charging decisions.”

The program so far is being applied to police reports submitted by Davis and West Sacramento police, but officials want to expand it to include charging decisions on cases from Woodland, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, Winters and UC Davis police.

The system runs through a computer program developed by Stanford University — for free — that takes a police report and redacts the names, locations and any other information that could tip a prosecutor about a suspect’s ethnic background.

“We basically give them a software package,” said Alex Chohlas-Wood, executive director of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab. “Our software package spits out a redacted narrative. It’s essentially acting as a bumper against the use of race in charging decisions.”

Yolo doesn’t include domestic violence, sex crime or homicide cases in the program, noting that prosecutors tackling DV or sex crimes need to be able to study a defendant’s criminal history to determine whether there is a pattern of such violence that should be taken into account.

Stanford hopes to provide the algorithm to any interested offices statewide and eventually across the nation.

Implementing the system in every county office may prove to be a challenge, especially for those that are not using a paper-free system as Yolo does.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert’s office said that it has had a favorable response to the idea, but that it may be difficult to put into place immediately.

“We are familiar with the Race Blind Charging program that the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office is implementing,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard said in a statement. “They shared the concept with our office early on in the program’s development phase. The program is innovative, and we like several aspects of it. Both our offices work well together and frequently exchange innovative ideas like this program.”

Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson said she sees some promise in the program, but added that jail population figures she receives regularly show Yolo County “disproportionately incarcerates Black people.”

Census figures show that 3 percent of the county’s residents are Black, while a jail population report from Aug. 2 showed that 41 of the 233 inmates in the Yolo County Jail (17.6 percent) were Black.