By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
At a peace rally in early June, when pressed to release data about how people of different races are prosecuted in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst publicly committed to greater transparency on that issue. Her ability to provide that information hinged on a new case management system her office was supposed to get this summer – but was soon thereafter scuttled by budget cuts.
Garst told The Citizen this week in an email that she learned on June 11 that funding for the new system had been cut as the city and county – which jointly fund the local justice system – grappled with the drastic economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe it is very important to provide transparent data to the public, which is why a modern case management system was in the budget long before the rally,” she said in her recent email. “I will provide all demographics data and other data permitted to the public as soon as I get funding to have such a system.”
The public request for transparency came from Harrisonburg resident Sam Nickels, who participated in the second peace rally organized around racial justice in June. At the rally, several hundred gathered on Court Square to ask questions and air grievances with Garst, Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English, and Anthony Bailey, a juvenile and domestic relations court judge.
“Prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in their work,” Nickels said, referencing studies that showed “how their prosecutions differed on the race of the person, and it was really clear from that study that people of color were essentially targeted by prosecutors, whether consciously or unconsciously, at far higher rates for both more prosecutions and severer types of sentences.”
The challenge in obtaining that information from local courts isn’t that racial data isn’t currently recorded, but that the current case management system cannot generate reports that sort entries based on certain criteria, including race.
After learning that funding for the new system had been cut, Garst’s office tried Plan B. Chris Bean, the deputy commonwealth’s attorney, told The Citizen in an email that they had applied for a Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services at the end of June, and expect to hear soon if they will receive the money.
The office has looked at several different systems, and Garst says one made by Karpel Solutions, a company based in St. Louis, Mo., is the preferred choice. It would let her office integrate and analyze old case data from previous years.
“Whichever system we ultimately purchase will certainly record and allow us to search and collate data for racial demographics,” Bean said.
For criminal justice planner Frank Sottaceti, such information is important because “we need to form our decisions based on data, not on emotions.”
He also hopes to use the new system to track other data about people in the justice system, such as their housing situation prior to an arrest or whether they are caring for a child in their home. Such analyses, he said, can reveal “cascading effects” of incarceration.
Amidst the current climate of people pushing for reform in the criminal justice system, he said innovative ideas are more likely to succeed if supported by data.
“They don’t build an airplane and say, ‘I wonder if this will fly,’ and load a hundred people on it and launch it. But yet we have all these great ideas, but they’re not data-driven ideas,” Sottaceti said.
While local numbers on racial disparity in prosecutorial decisions are not currently available, studies elsewhere in recent years have shown a clear trend. Washington Post opinion writer Radley Balko gathered dozens of peer-reviewed studies and data reviews in a piece first published in 2018 that demonstrated racial bias at every level of the American criminal justice system.
Another study, conducted by The Daily Press, reviewed more than 400,000 case records from Hampton Roads. It reported in 2016 that white defendants more often negotiated plea bargains that resulted in no actual jail time than did Black people, whether the charge was drug possession, drug distribution, or grand larceny.
And a research summary published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2011 found that “Blacks are less likely to receive a reduced charge compared with whites” and “Blacks are also less likely to receive the benefits of shorter or reduced sentences as a result of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion during plea bargaining … Studies have generally found a relationship between race and whether or not a defendant receives a reduced charge.”
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