California Parole Board Accused of Withholding Data From Researchers

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California prison administrators refuse to turn over public data on parole candidates because they disagree with a researcher’s prior findings of racial disparities in parole board decisions, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

In April 2018, four researchers requested 15 years of parole board hearing transcripts and race and ethnicity data for parole candidates from 2002 through 2017, later expanding their request to cover records through Nov. 1, 2019. The researchers from the University of Oregon and Stanford University intend to develop a machine-learning platform to help analyze and detect patterns of bias in California parole decisions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released the hearing transcripts but refused to disclose records on race and ethnicity, arguing state law does not require it to turn over information that “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The department also refused to release the data through a separate “research review” process after a Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) administrator said she disagreed with University of Oregon researcher Kristen Bell’s prior findings of racial bias in parole decisions for people sentenced to life as juveniles.

In October 2019, the board’s executive officer Jennifer Shaffer said she disagreed with Bell’s conclusions and objected to her research being used in legal filings to oppose CDCR’s positions in court cases, according to the lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court on Wednesday. Shaffer also reportedly said she would only release the requested records if Bell was no longer involved in the project.

“To deny them access to documents that they are legally entitled to on the basis of their opinions and their speech and associations, that is viewpoint discrimination,” said Cara Gagliano, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who represents Bell and three other researchers.

Gagliano added that government officials should not act as “gatekeepers” to information based on whether they think that information will be used to agree or to disagree with them.

Shaffer also stated in November last year that race and ethnicity are “not relevant” to research on parole board decisions, according to the lawsuit.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Bell said it would be irresponsible for a researcher to exclude factors such as race that a vast trove of prior analyses have found influence outcomes in the criminal justice system.

“Doing a study on these kinds of decisions without race data would be ignoring evidence of something known to be a factor in decision making,” Bell said.

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a machine-learning platform that can identify parole board decisions that may have been influenced by improper factors such as race.

“My collaborators and I are trying to model how parole decisions work to improve the fairness in those decisions, and getting data about the race of people in prison is critical in doing that,” Bell said.

On the department’s claim that releasing race data would violate prisoners’ privacy rights, EFF attorney Gagliano pointed to a similar case in which a state court judge found in 2016 that releasing such data would not violate privacy rights.

“This is not an undue invasion of privacy,” Gagliano said. “This is information that is largely available through other sources and certainly is not more private than a lot of the other information they do not deny must be made publicly available.”

The California Public Records Act requires that privacy-based disclosure exemptions be balanced against the public interest of making such data available, Gagliano explained.

“The public interest in having the race and ethnicity data for people who are candidates for parole is extremely high because having that information is the only real way to asses if there are systemic biases,” she said.

The lawsuit claims CDCR is violating the First Amendment and public records law by refusing to release the data. The researchers seek a court order requiring disclosure and recovery of litigation costs.

Researchers Catalin Voss, Yun Hong and Nicholas McKeown of Stanford University joined Bell as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to comment on pending litigation.

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