The American Civil Liberties Union Monday issued a report that accused Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer of pursuing “tough on crime” policies, prosecuting low-level offenses instead of opting for alternative rehabilitative programs, which the organization said leads to unfair racial disparities in criminal prosecutions.
But Spitzer snapped back that the ACLU’s prescriptions for law enforcement drive up crime rates.
The ACLU also faulted Spitzer for not releasing crime statistics to help with its report and it relied on data released by Spitzer’s predecessor, Tony Rackauckas.
“The lack of transparency with respect to charging data under the current OCDA’s tenure is particularly concerning, given that the current OCDA ran on a platform of transparency,” the ACLU wrote in its report.
“All available evidence suggests that the office’s policies and practices have not shifted substantially under the current OCDA.”
In 2017 and the following year the District Attorney’s Office filed 259,130 charges and 4,479 enhancements against 121,200 defendants, according to the ACLU, which said 64% of all the charges were for “low-level offenses that should be either” rejected or “diverted” to a program to help some defendants such as ones with addiction issues or who are veterans or have mental health problems.
The ACLU relied on data “obtained by the Voice of OC” news organization for 2019 and 2020.
“There were persistent racial disparities across the OCDA’s Office’s charging practices, and Black people were more likely to be charged with a crime, more likely to be charged with a felony, and more likely to be negatively impacted by discretionary charging practices related to wobblers, enhancements, and diversion than white people,” according to the ACLU.
The ACLU recommended a cessation of prosecuting “low-level offenses,” which would “eliminate more than half of the office’s caseload.”
And when a case “wobbles” between a felony and misdemeanor the office should opt for the lesser charge, the ACLU said.
The ACLU also pushed for an “internal policy to eliminate the use of sentence enhancements, which are a major contributor of extreme sentencing and racial disparities.”
The ACLU wants the District Attorney’s Office to “expand eligibility” for diversion programs and that they are provided before a charge is filed and does not require a guilty plea. The organization also wants the programs offered at no cost.
The ACLU also criticized the District Attorney’s Office for its handling of police-involved shootings, noting that no charges were filed in any incident. The ACLU wants an outside agency created to review the law-enforcement shootings.
The ACLU also pushed for the office to support state legislation to “end police in schools, end the adult prosecution of children and expand developmentally appropriate alternatives to incarceration for all youth.”
The District Attorney’s Office released a statement saying the report was “the ACLU’s playbook for the failed policies of Los Angeles and San Francisco, resulting in soaring homicide and violent crime rates.”
Spitzer said Orange County was the “safest large county in California and I am proud of that fact.”
Spitzer said he wants to “hold violent offenders accountable while demonstrating empathy and compassion by reducing recidivisim and partnering with mental health services to provide those who are suffering from substance use disorders and mental illness treatment and a pathway out of the criminal justice system.”
Spitzer added, “We cannot incarcerate our way out of mental illness, which is why I created a mental health unit and a recidivism reduction unit.”
Spitzer said in his first two years, “I prosecuted twice the number of hate crimes that were prosecuted in the prior 25 years by my predecessors. I created a hate crimes unit to aggressively prosecute cases in which victims are targeted for the way they look, where they come from, or their sexual orientation.”
Spitzer said he has worked to reduce jail population “with prudent, risk-based bail assessments that protect the community while ensuring those who don’t need to be incarcerated aren’t.”
Spitzer added his office was “in the final planning stages of rolling out a pre-filing diversion partnership in conjunction with our law enforcement partners.”
Spitzer said the ACLU “is no friend of law enforcement and this report based on outdated data is nothing more than another way to defund the police and jeopardize public safety.”