The Santa Barbara County Probation Department presented a report analyzing racial disparities in the criminal justice system to the Board of Supervisors at last week’s meeting, showing the differences between how people of color and white residents are moved through the system.

The Probation Department calculated the relative rate index (RRI) of youths and adults at various decision points in the criminal justice system, and while the RRI does not take into account historical factors that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system, it serves as a statistical starting point for conversations about what changes need to be made.

“Equity cannot be achieved at the deepest decision points without addressing the disparity at the earliest points,” Probation Chief Tanja Heitman said. “The RRI allows us to have a discussion about improving the criminal justice system while also recognizing that the overall health of our community is at the heart of the issue.

“We must continue to address the drivers of disparity at the earliest stages while making every effort to improve other decision points throughout the system.”

The report tracked six key decision points from the point of arrest all the way through sentencing for both youths and adults, comparing the rate of disparities between people of color and white residents, said Karyn Milligan, the Probation Department’s manager of research for special projects.

It reveals how disparities accumulate as individuals move further into the system using a base indicator of one, meaning that a racial or ethnic group is represented at the same rate as whites, Milligan said. 

Youths of color between ages 10 and 17, who make up 63% of the county’s total youth population, are 2.6 times more likely to be referred to probation than white youths, and youths of color are 2.4 times more likely to be booked into Juvenile Hall than white youths, according to Milligan. 

First District Supervisor Das Williams said that figures as high as 2.4 or 2.6 should be a point of attention.

The report found that youths of color were overrepresented in five out of the six decision points — referrals, Juvenile Hall bookings, cases petitioned, petitions sustained and secure detention — and were equally represented in in-custody holds for detention hearings.

“The data indicate the point of referral contributed the most to the overall disparity between youth of color and white youth in the juvenile system,” Milligan said.

The report analyzed data for adults in the criminal justice system from January to March 2020, and showed that in those three months, Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to be booked, less likely to receive pretrial supervision and were more likely to receive a disposition of state prison when compared with whites, Milligan said.

Black adults, who make up 2% of the county’s adult population, were 3.5 times more likely to be booked than white adults, and Hispanic adults, who make up 42% of the county’s adult population, were 1.4 times more likely to be booked.

Black adults were 1.8 times more likely to receive a state prison disposition, and Hispanic adults were two times more likely to receive a state prison disposition than white adults, according to the report.

While the data cannot provide the answers around the causes of such disparities, it does highlight the decision points where the contribution to disparity was the greatest and helps prioritize the points of which further study and action are most warranted, Milligan said.

Williams and Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart praised the report for providing a data-driven starting point for future conversations.

“The reason this is so important is because we have to have a ground-based truth to begin this conversation, and having this information here, like this, in this format that is really easily digestible, is shocking to see the disparities represented here,” Hart said. “Legitimately, there are lots of questions about why and what we should do about that. But we can’t have an informed conversation about those things without an agreement about the facts and data.”

While the report was deemed informative, the board agreed that it ended up posing more questions than it answered.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he was interested in looking at the economic aspect to the disparities, to see if a poor brown teenager is more likely to be committed to detention than a poor white teenager, or if a poor brown teenager is more likely to be committed than a rich brown teenager.

“It’s uncomfortable sometimes to try and tackle some of these things, I think, but the only way to fix these things is to really peel back the onion and get to the core root,” Lavagnino said, adding that the report is a start to those discussions.

Board chairman Bob Nelson agreed, saying that analyzing socioeconomic and other drivers of disparity are essential because he feared that the report might cause some community members to think that the system is broken.

“My big fear in this presentation all along is that it might be confirmation for somebody who already thinks that we’re broken,” he said. “And yeah, we’re broken, but not in the sense that this shows that our justice system is racist.”

Williams said that the numbers “very much do confirm the fact that parts of our criminal justice system are broken,” but agreed that understanding how much of that factor is socioeconomic and how much of it is a double standard based on skin color is key to understanding what the proper solution is for fixing that brokenness.

“I definitely think that people should walk away with this looking at those numbers and saying, ‘Something has to be fixed here,’” he said.

Heitman recognized that the data does not answer all of the questions surrounding racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and highlighted the numerous efforts underway to work toward the commitment of reducing racial disparities.

Some of the efforts include collecting input from victims and justice-involved individuals on the challenges faced and treatment within the criminal justice system, prioritizing bilingual and bicultural staff to be supportive of people in cross-cultural settings, investing in additional interventions that promote positive youth development, expanding the use of pretrial supervision and diversion alternatives, and reducing incarceration for probation violations, among others.

Perhaps most importantly, Heitman said, is the Probation Department’s work to launch the Shared Safety initiative that would shift the focus from historical punitive responses to crime to restoring the well-being of the community through a public health framework with an emphasis on prevention.

The department, along with the county’s Community Corrections Partnership, is exploring a form of analysis agreement that would analyze local criminal justice data to better understand how the characteristics and outcomes of the justice-involved population have changed over time, Heitman said.

“If approved, this collaborative work will create a strong foundation of evidence to support the county in making changes to practices and policies to better achieve our shared goals while also ensuring that we’re not relying on anecdotal information or limited perspectives to guide us,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.