The Charlottesville area’s disproportionate minority contact study, possibly the first of its kind in the nation, verified an overall sense that African Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system in proportion to their population and that there are disparities in outcomes within the system. In City Hall, Kaki Dimock, director of human services, is at the forefront of the question of what comes next.

While the study seemed to confirm with data the anecdotes many Charlottesville-area residents have been voicing, it’s the disparity in the criminal justice system that Dimock said may guide next steps in addressing the impact of law enforcement on African Americans. 

“I have a friend that uses the expression, ‘describing the water you’re drowning in’ — it doesn’t actually do much for you,” Dimock said. “But understanding or describing your disproportionality rate is sort of just the very first step to then doing something, like, knowing where the disparity happens and then taking some action on it. I think that combination thing is pretty critical … we tried to do both in our study instead of just looking at the numbers.” 

In the study, “disproportionate” was defined as one race being represented more or less than the racial makeup of a community, while “disparity” was defined as when people in similar situations have different outcomes based on race. Disparity is harder, Dimock noted, to keep track of when various groups compose the criminal justice system and that city is not necessarily in charge of everything.

Using data from between 2014 and 2016, the study by Florida-based MGT Consulting Group compared African American and white individuals “of similar background, with similar characteristics and circumstances, who were booked in that time” and found that there were various examples of disparity between the two. Some data from the study states that:

  • Black residents face more serious charges than white residents and a larger number of total charges.
  • African Americans are more likely not to be released on bond.
  • There is a disparity by race among men in the length of time defendants were held in jail before trial. Black men are held double the amount of time as white men.
  • Black women are sentenced to about 213 more days than white women.
DMC

Credit: Image courtesy of MGT Consulting Group

Disparities were not found by race in time served after sentencing.

The data that was pulled for the study came from various points in the criminal justice system. Although the city and Albemarle County works closely with their respective commonwealth’s attorney’s offices — along with offender aid and restoration, judges and magistrate’s offices — they have no say in what those entities do.

“The city is not in charge of a lot of those systems, … so how will they respond to this information and how will they decide to incorporate it to practice changes or internal reflections?” Dimock said. “… [W]e have these multiple relatively independent organizations that are sort of working in concert together, but none of them [are] directly accountable to the other. So, we’ve become accountable to each other through relationship-building and through a desire for collaboration and improved process for our community. …”

Dimock said that while this makes for “potential great flexibility and creativity,” it also makes things difficult.

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“I think that’s an open question — how this gets impacted … it can’t just be an intellectual exercise. It has to also then result in some sort of change so that we have that confidence in our system to say that it’s providing the best possible service for our community.”

For some, the study confirmed anecdotal information, and there have been years of mistrust of the criminal justice system, especially around transparency, she said. A part of that perceived lack of transparency stems from a reluctance to release some data without fully vetting it for accuracy, she said.

“It’s always going to be, I think, perceived negatively even though often it’s because we’re we can’t release the data because it’s not reliable enough to release and we don’t trust that ourselves,” Dimock said. “I think it’s tricky because we’d like to be able to release everything all the time in some ways, but we have to also be able to trust it.”

Absent from the study was data from both the Charlottesville and Albemarle police departments, which drew some criticism from community members. Dimock said that lack of police data stemmed from difficulties in extracting the information while the departments migrate to a new software system.

“Both city police and Albemarle police were ready and willing to give us data, but when our criminal justice planner, Neal Goodloe, looked at the data that they had to offer, he quickly realized that wouldn’t be integratable … with our master dataset,” Dimock said.

The bulk of funding for the study came in 2018 from a $100,000 grant through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, and the City Council approved an additional $55,400 from its Department of Human Services Fund Balance in July 2019. Dimock said it wasn’t enough money to have staffing to clean up the police data and integrate it with the data from other sources. The snapshot for the report spanned from 2014 to 2016 because they were the most recent years where the remainder of the data was available.

“So, we went with the biggest bang for our buck, which is three systems that we knew we could look at in less than 12 months and arrive at some conclusion,” she said. “So, we intend to go back and get police data. I think the question is, prospectively, do we continue to try to get a more robust understanding of the criminal justice system for that time period, 2014 through 2016, or do we say we want to look at it a point in time slice of police data?”

Regardless of the direction, officials have concluded that more study, and funding for further scrutiny, is needed.

“… For me, this is not very satisfying. It wasn’t very satisfying for me, honestly, to present to council or even the community around the report … the nuance and complexity around it,” Dimock said. “It’s hard to stick with that and ask people to come along with you, but because of the level of nuance and complexity, I feel really solid about the decisions or the findings that were made in this report. That also then speaks to the difficulty in making additional findings regardless of whether we go upstream or downstream. It’s not so easy.”

In the meantime, Dimock said it is important that the current study remains a discussion point. All too often, people who work in policies focus on “pursuing [data] that’s not necessarily meaningful or relevant to the community,” she said.

“I do think it’s really important that we do engage the community and have some conversations around this, now that this is out in the sunlight, to say what does the community think is most important?” she said. “… I’m assuming they’ll all continue to want to be involved in the process, and so I’m hopeful that it will continue to be a good process and not driven by one municipality or one organization system in the criminal justice system, that we’re all sort of invested in moving forward together.”