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California Courts Slow to Adopt Mandate Eliminating Bias

In the two years since California passed a Racial Justice Act, attorneys and public defenders say there has been slow progress toward criminal justice reform and pursuit of a less biased system. University of California, Berkeley’s Criminal Law and Justice Center and the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law hosted a symposium Friday on following the new law through pretrial, trial and post-conviction processes, Courthouse News reports. The act prohibits “bias based on race, ethnicity, or national origin in charges, convictions and sentences,” and describes what constitute violations by government actors or agencies. Karina Alvarez of Santa Clara County’s Public Defender’s Office said the 2022 law codifies what constitutes racial discrimination at different levels within the criminal justice system. “Up until it passed, we in the courts have only addressed racism and bias in its most overt forms,” Alvarez said. Several attorneys are already litigating Racial Justice Act claims in state and appellate courts.

Morgan Zamora of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said her team is scrambling to ensure that incarcerated people understand their rights under the act, especially if they use it to seek a habeas corpus petition. Lisa Romo of the state Public Defender’s Office said all of these efforts are hampered by limited funds and information. Police departments must each year report data on incidents, from stops to arrests, to the state Department of Justice, but beyond that data it is difficult and expensive to obtain records for a Racial Justice Act claim. The Paper Prisons Initiative said it is seeking the federal approval of its new tool to help attorneys analyze that crime data and help identify disparities. Santa Clara University economics Prof. William Sundstrom said the tool can be used to identify disparities like higher rates of arrests among Black residents in Los Angeles County, compared to their portion of the county’s population. The struggle lies in knowing how to use the data while understanding that it is limited, he said, since not all counties and police departments have had to report as much, or in as timely a manner.


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