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Academics studyingare filing a lawsuit against the California prison system, saying they have been illegally denied public records on race and ethnicity data for two years.
, submitted Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court, alleges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has blocked the study, in part, because one of the researchers previously published work critical of the state’s parole process.
Attorneys for the researchers at Stanford University and the University of Oregon School of Law called the records request denials “viewpoint discrimination” and a violation of the First Amendment.
“Our takeaway from this is they don’t want evidence-based conclusions if they’re conclusions they don’t like or disagree with,” said Cara Gagliano, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who represents the plaintiffs.
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A spokesman for the prison system and Board of Parole hearings said officials could not comment on pending litigation. The Chronicle typically does not write about lawsuits until they have been registered by the court, but coronavirus-related delays have stalled the process of an official filing.
Of the more than 6,000 parole hearings in 2019, California’s Board of Parole granted release at approximately 20% of scheduled hearings and denied parole in 37%,. In other cases, the hearings were postponed, canceled or waived.
The team of researchers from Stanford and Oregon ultimately hope to create an artificial intelligence system that can flag parole denials that may have been improperly influenced. Such a study could then identify certain people as candidates for reconsideration.
For the system to work, researchers said, they first need to analyze a trove of, including multiple factors about the individuals, like their race and ethnicity data. The researchers are seeking records from approximately 50,000 parole suitability hearings held between 2002 and 2019.
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The researchers submitted their first records request to the prison system’s Board of Parole Hearings on April 11, 2018. In the following months, the lawsuit states, they were redirected on multiple occasions and engaged in a protracted series of negotiations with prison officials.
The state’s parole unit in September 2018 provided a subset of the requested information, but some of the requested data was only contained in CDCR management system.
After more than a year of negotiations, the researching team sent renewed records requests in a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz and included a copy to Jennifer Shaffer, the executive officer for the Board of Parole Hearings.
An attorney for the parole board responded that the researchers’ request would be denied based on California public records law, which exempts the disclosure of personnel, medical or similar files.
The researchers argued that race and ethnicity information would not fall into these categories.
In later discussions, the researchers said, Shaffer “disputed the necessity of accounting for race in Petitioners’ analysis,” and she allegedly singled out one of the four researchers on the team, Kristen Bell.
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Bell, who is an assistant professor at University of Oregon School of Law, had previously conducted research on California parole decisions for people who committed crimes as juveniles, and published her work in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Among her findings, Bell concluded that race and other illegitimate factors accounted for a “considerable degree of variability” in the parole decisions, the suit states.
In a phone conversation, researchers said, Shaffer informed them that the board would only provide the records if Dr. Bell was not involved with their project.
“Ms. Shaffer explained that she objected to the conclusions that Dr. Bell had reached in her previous scholarship based on CDCR records,” the suit states.
In the coming weeks or months, attorneys for the state prison system are expected to respond to the petition, and there will likely be further briefings and a hearing on the petition.
Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:Twitter:
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