The greatest race-based disparities in California exist in the realm of criminal justice, a reflection of the fact that the justice system is built on discretionary decision-making—i.e., picking who to stop, who to arrest, who to charge, and what sentence to hand down. This has turned individual bias into systemic racial injustice. Disparities on this issue area are largely driven by incarceration, which in turn is the single most racially-disparate indicator we studied. Notably, almost all medium-sized or larger counties are both low-performing and highly-disparate, compared with a tight cluster of high-performing, low-disparity small counties. This suggests that disparities in criminal justice are not a regional problem—they appear to occur everywhere in California that is large enough to have a substantial system.
U.S. policing has been a historical tool used to maintain and control Blacks from its roots in slavery and Jim Crow, to contemporary racial profiling, stop-search-frisk policies and gang injunctions. In response to the Civil Rights Movement, the white opposition launched the War on Drugs and zero-tolerance policies, which led to an explosion in the prison population, disproportionately affecting Black men.
Throughout California, community leaders are advocating for reducing sentences, increasing prevention and resources in low-income neighborhoods to help the formerly incarcerated rehabilitate into society and prevent violence without increasing policing. Advocates’ strategies have pushed to win state-level reforms while watchdogging county-level implementation, including the Proposition 47 sentencing-reform campaign and current efforts to reform bail practices and limit jail expansion. However, more needs to be done on this issue area, particularly around overpolicing in communities of color and targeting people of color. Since many of those incarcerated are in need of social services, public officials can contribute to the elimination of these disparities by allocating additional dollars to the provision of housing, substance abuse treatment, and other social services that residents in many communities of color need.
Diversifying the police force – combined with institutional practices and officer trainings to address implicit bias – can improve relations with police and communities of color.