Tag Archives: District Attorney

Knee-Jerk Responses vs. Smarter Safety Policies

Last September, the San Francisco Police Department – under the command of former chief George Gascón – submitted a proposal responding to the uptick in violence outside a handful of San Francisco nightclubs.

The proposal was supposed to be heard this week by the city’s Entertainment Commission, but Mayor Ed Lee appropriately delayed the hearing for more debate.

The violence outside of nightclubs is a serious problem that must be addressed in a thoughtful way. But the SFPD’s flawed proposal is a knee-jerk response that will not make us safer and will violate our privacy rights. We need to understand why a city as progressive on policy as San Francisco is being offered flawed political solutions to serious public safety challenges.

A Plan Likely to Backfire

The SFPD proposal mandates venues to swipe patrons’ identification cards and keep this personal information on record for subsequent police review and to place metal detectors at some venues with occupancy levels exceeding 100, among other requirements.

This proposal is extremely problematic on a number of levels – the first of which is that it will likely backfire. Most nightclub violence takes place outside, not inside the clubs. Creating bottlenecks and barriers to entry will have the effect of keeping more trouble outside. And creating an environment so unwelcoming that many law-abiding people will stay home or go to other cities, while some potential troublemakers will simply go to unregulated clubs, could make our streets more dangerous at night.

The police proposal has been rightly criticized by the California Music and Culture Association (CMAC), which is proposing more sensible reforms. The SFPD proposal has also come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has weighed in on very real First Amendment and privacy concerns. Choices of art and music venues often reflect private political and personal preferences; requiring that venues store patrons’ identification information thus raises serious constitutional issues.

As the father of two young daughters, I don’t make it out to clubs as much as I used to. But I know what a vital role nighttime venues play in our culture, our identity and our economy.

We don’t want to put responsible club owners out of business with costly proposals that do not improve public safety. Instead, we should be working collaboratively with these responsible owners on real solutions, such as enhanced training of security personnel, improved lighting and better coordination with the SFPD. I also believe we should look more closely at the licensing status of clubs where crime patterns emerge – and be more aggressive about revoking the permits of those operators who don’t provide a safe environment for their patrons and neighbors.

These are practical steps that would make us safer by targeting the problem clubs, not every venue, and they are steps that would not violate the First Amendment and privacy rights of people who patronize San Francisco’s clubs.

A Political Proposal

But instead of practical solutions, the nightclub plan exemplifies the reactive “do something – do anything” mentality that so often creates “safety” policies that actually make us less safe. If it is adopted in anything like its current form, it will be yet another example of knee-jerk responses beating out thoughtful policies.

Our police chief at the time – George Gascón – was under pressure to “do something.” But instead of a reasoned and collaborative solution, what was proposed was simply more politics. The public and the politicians demanded action – so the police proposed action even though their proposals would not make us safer, would violate our constitutional rights and would be tied up in the courts for years.

The best tool to create a safer community is not to violate the privacy rights of San Franciscans who contribute to our culture and economy by patronizing our clubs, but to enlist club owners and the broader community to work collaboratively with law enforcement to support a safer environment around the clubs.

We need to reduce the violence outside of nightclubs. But let’s do so with thoughtful policies – not knee-jerk, political responses.

David Onek is a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.

It’s Time to Reform Three Strikes

California voters overwhelmingly passed the Three Strikes initiative in 1994 based on the promise that it would take repeat violent offenders off the streets.

But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes.

Most Californians already know that in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.

But many Californians are surprised to learn that, under Three Strikes, Curtis Wilkerson of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for petty theft of a pair of socks; that Shane Taylor of Tulare was sentenced to life for simple possession of 0.1 gram of methamphetamine; or that Greg Taylor of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat.

In fact, the majority of those put away for life under Three Strikes – over 4,000 people total – committed a minor, non-violent third strike. These non-violent third strikers will, according to the California state auditor, cost the state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years – almost $200 million per year.

The people named above have an advantage that the vast majority of three strikers do not — they are all clients of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic. Under the direction of Project co-founder Michael Romano, Stanford law students have helped get a dozen non-violent third strikers released from prison after having their sentences reduced.

They are not being released because they are innocent. As Romano said on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast,

“Our clients are, in almost every circumstance, absolutely guilty. We’re not going into court and saying that they didn’t do it. What we’re saying is that the punishment that they received for this petty crime is disproportionate.”

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Simply put, it is time to reform Three Strikes – so that it is focused on the serious and violent repeat offenders we all agree society must be protected from. Because Three Strikes was passed by a voter initiative, it can only be changed by initiative. In the past, Three Strikes was viewed as untouchable. But now, with the state facing fiscal catastrophe, and Romano and his students bringing attention to the unjust extremes of the law with each new client that gets released, there is momentum for change.

Romano thinks that there is another ingredient necessary for successful reform: political leadership. He says that “with a few notable exceptions, there has been very little leadership on this issue from our elected law enforcement leaders.”

Now is the time to show the leadership what it will take to return to sensible, cost-effective and fair criminal justice polices in California.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. You can listen to Onek’s recent interview with Romano on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast.

San Francisco District Attorney’s Office Must be Transparent in Officer-Involved Shootings

After spending my career working to identify and implement the most effective public safety strategies, I have seen one constant – the community is safest when the police and prosecutors earn and keep the public’s trust.

That’s why I read with real concern that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office would not produce reports related to officer-involved shootings pursuant to a recent public records request from NPR-affiliate KALW.

As a former Police Commissioner, I have been briefed in closed session on the details of officer-involved shootings. But the public knows very little about these incidents. My fellow Commissioners and I often heard complaints from community members about how little public information was released about officer-involved shootings. This lack of transparency breeds distrust.

In all officer-involved shootings, the DA’s office conducts an independent review to determine if there is criminal liability. If such liability is found, the DA presses charges, which are public. But when the DA determines that there is no liability, it is equally important that the DA publicly explain the reasons for its decision.

As such, the District Attorney’s office should issue a very detailed report on every officer-involved shooting in which it does not file charges and should make the report publicly available on its website. The report should detail the facts, the law and the reasons for the decision not to file charges.

This kind of complete transparency will make the job of our police and prosecutors much easier by building trust between law enforcement and the community – making it more likely that community members will work in partnership with police and prosecutors, and that victims and witnesses will come forward to testify.

San Francisco is lucky that we are served by rank and file police officers who are second to none. Publishing detailed reports that clear officers when they acted within the law can dispel public misconceptions about what actually happened.

Of course, officers’ privacy rights need to be respected and investigations cannot be compromised. But once an investigation is complete, and an officer has been cleared, it is imperative that the District Attorney’s office share its findings with the public.

This is the standard that is already being applied in communities throughout California. The District Attorney’s office in San Diego, hardly a bastion of liberalism, actually lists these cases on its website. Many other counties – including Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno – also make them matters of public record and available on request.

Building trust with the community is the key to enhancing public safety. Let’s not violate that trust by refusing to release documents that the public has the right to see.

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney.

A small investment for a safer California

California will release an unprecedented number of prisoners back to their communities in the coming year, prodded by both the state budget crisis and the federal courts.

But those returning will be far less prepared to successfully re-enter society – due to severe cuts to rehabilitation programs in prison – and will be returning to counties that are far less prepared to assist them – due to massive budget deficits at the county level.

Many are concerned that this will lead to an increase in California’s already astronomical recidivism rate of 70%, costing the state even more in corrections spending and leading to further victimization in our communities.

What to do?

A new report by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice (BCCJ) points to a proven solution that will decrease recidivism and enhance public safety with significant cost savings to the state: increasing employment opportunities for people with prior convictions.

As BCCJ’s Founding Executive Director, I was privileged to convene the wide-ranging project advisory board that developed the report’s timely recommendations. The group consisted of an extremely diverse group of “unlikely allies” – with representatives from law enforcement, advocacy groups, employers, and other stakeholders from across the political spectrum and from all corners of the state. As advisory board member and East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis recently said: “It was just an outstanding group, and it opened my eyes: it really showed me that even with the diverse group that was there, law enforcement to prosecutors to advocates for the formerly incarcerated, how closely aligned we were.”

The BCCJ report points to solutions as simple as providing a California ID card to everyone leaving prison – a prerequisite for applying for most jobs. This low-cost measure has been passed by the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Governor-Elect Jerry Brown would be wise to call for and sign a new bill.

Other solutions do cost some money in the short run – but save many times that in the long run. Investing in prison vocational education programs has proven to save money: the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar invested netted nearly twelve dollars in return. But California has gone in the opposite direction, cutting vocational education and other rehabilitation programs in prison by $250 million – close to half of the total rehabilitation budget. Governor-Elect Brown has said he wants to avoid quick fixes and budget gimmicks that save money in one fiscal year only to cost the state much more down the line. That’s exactly what these recent cuts have done. Governor-Elect Brown should increase spending on vocational education and related programs and can count on future corrections savings as a result.  

At the county level, the BCCJ report calls for the development of re-entry councils such as those begun in San Diego under the leadership of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a BCCJ project advisory board member, and in San Francisco under the leadership of Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris and others, to better coordinate re-entry services at the local level. The councils cost little but can have a big impact.

Simply put, a small investment in helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs will have a huge payoff in reduced corrections costs, reduced recidivism and reduced crime in our communities.

As the BCCJ report shows, law enforcement leaders, advocates, and enlightened employers all understand this. Here’s hoping that our new Governor does too.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast, and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.

Why Smarter on Crime Makes Fiscal Sense

There is a healthy amount of attention being paid to California’s systemic fiscal challenges this election cycle – with a new state budget apparently out of balance even before it was signed.    

But as we debate how to restore fiscal sanity, we need to understand how the skyrocketing cost of our state’s criminal justice system is contributing to the downward spiral – and what we can do to reverse the fiscally unsustainable trend.    

During last year’s budget, California spent 11% of its general fund on the state prison system and only 7.5% on higher education.    

This level of spending on prisons requires raising taxes and fees while cutting other programs – and, ironically, the first targets are too often programs that help reduce crime. For example, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is slashing $250 million – almost 45% – of the $560 million it had allocated to rehabilitation this year alone.    

We know that sending more kids to summer school lowers the drop-out rate, which is one of the single biggest predictors of future criminal activity. And, we also know that our state prison recidivism rate of nearly 70% could go even higher as proven prison rehabilitation programs continue to fall to the budget axe. And this recidivism rate has an immediate fiscal impact – with the cost of housing a single prisoner in California now reaching nearly $50,000 per year.    

Fixing this difficult and systemic problem will take bold new ideas and leadership. And nowhere is this issue more important than in the Attorney General’s race, where San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has the chance to bring her reform-minded, and cost effective, policies to Sacramento.    

As NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said recently, Kamala Harris has been “a transformative force on all levels, really increasing the level of intelligence in the criminal justice conversation.”    

During Harris’ tenure, San Francisco has dramatically lowered crime rates by keeping more kids in school, teaching more young people job skills, creating living wage jobs and focusing police and prosecutorial resources on programs that make the most sense, not just programs that make for easy headlines.    

The numbers prove the success of these policies. With a very small investment San Francisco has seen a significant 33% drop in elementary school truancy in just the past two years. Since keeping kids in school keeps young adults out of prison, this improvement will not only help protect San Francisco families, it will help protect California taxpayers.    

One of the best examples of the effectiveness of the Smart on Crime approach is the Back on Track program Harris launched in San Francisco. The program directs non-violent, first-time drug offenders into job training and rehabilitation services. Since the program was launched, Back on Track graduates have just a 10% recidivism rate – a stark contrast to the typical 50% rate for similar offenders. This success, if it could be replicated statewide, would save hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the long term.    

Prison sentences – long prison sentences – are a powerful tool and should be used whenever required to protect our communities. And in San Francisco, conviction rates are up as prosecutors focus on violent and serious crimes.    

But the data show that by promoting a range of prevention and intervention programs, Harris has established a track record that can protect communities without bankrupting them.      

We tend to think of the Attorney General’s race as focused on issues that are separate from other political contests in California. But with budgets so tight this year, we must embrace an Attorney General who understands how to keep us safe from crime while helping to restore fiscal sanity in Sacramento.    

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and a Former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.  

Smart on Crime: Good for Public Safety, Good for Budgets

(I want to welcome SF’s District Attorney Kamala Harris. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

States across our country are facing budget deficits. California is projected to begin next fiscal year with a deficit of nearly 25 billion dollars, equaling one fourth of the state’s entire general fund. Over 10 billion of that general fund supports corrections and law enforcement. In this fiscal crisis, there is no denying the facts: tough budget times are here for public safety agencies. As the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, I am personally familiar with the difficult circumstances we face. Without a significant shift in local and state practices, we can predict that shrinking law enforcement and corrections funding will result in higher crime rates, less support for victims, and fewer offenders being held accountable. If ever there was a time to think outside the box and break with the failed approaches of the past, the time is now. We need to do something different.

In San Francisco, I have developed a smart on crime approach: we must be tough on serious and violent offenders while we get just as tough on the root causes of crime. In my office, we have raised felony conviction rates and sent more violent offenders to state prison, at the same time we have launched innovative, cost effective approaches to reduce recidivism, truancy, and childhood trauma. With a genuine investment in breaking cycles of crime, we can improve public safety at the same time that we save precious public resources.

EDIT by Brian: See the flip

Reentry: Why it Matters to Law Enforcement

Over the last thirty years, our prison population has soared. In 1980, California had a prison population of about 24,000 in a state of 24 million. Today we have an inmate population of 172,000 out of 36 million people. This means that since 1980, our population has grown by 50 % while our prison population has grown 617%.

Today, the majority of those inmates are not first-time offenders. Each year, approximately 70 percent of those released from California prisons commit another offense, resulting in the highest recidivism rate in the nation. These repeat offenses are preventable crimes that claim more victims and harm communities’ quality of life. It costs an estimated $10,000 to prosecute just one felony case, and about $47,000 per year to house just one inmate in prison. Every time an inmate is released and commits a new crime, local and state jurisdictions pay those costs over and over again.  To keep our communities safe and use public money wisely, we must ensure that people coming out of the criminal justice system become productive citizens and stay out.

Four years ago my office pioneered a model reentry initiative called "Back on Track" to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders. Back on Track combines accountability with opportunity to ensure that first-time nonviolent drug offenders are held accountable, stop committing crime and become self-sufficient. In Back on Track, offenders plead guilty and commit to strict court supervision as they complete an intensive personal responsibility program. They get trained for a job, go back to school, get current with child support, enroll in parenting classes, and become positive contributors in their communities. The program encompasses swift sanctions for making bad choices and clear incentives for good ones. As a result, less than 10 percent of Back on Track graduates have re-offended compared to a 54 percent recidivism rate statewide for the same population of offenders. We have achieved this success at a fraction of the cost of traditional corrections approaches. Back on Track costs about $5,000 annually per participant, compared to $35,000 to 47,000 for jail or prison.

To graduate, Back on Track participants must be employed or in school. The program has been selected as a national model by the National District Attorney’s Association and at least two jurisdictions have replicated the initiative. Back on Track demonstrates that preventing recidivism is both viable and cost-effective.

Truancy: Keeping Children in School Means Keeping Our Streets Safe

In 2007, after another year of high homicide rates in San Francisco, I asked my staff to review the victims’ histories to assess trends. We found that over the prior four years, 94% of homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school drop outs. We then reviewed SF public schools data and found that over 5,000 students were habitually or chronically truant each year, and nearly half of those kids were in elementary school. These are the kids on route to becoming high school drop outs.

In response, I joined with the San Francisco Unified School District to launch a citywide truancy initiative focused on getting elementary and middle school kids back in school. As the city’s chief prosecutor, I sent every parent in the district a letter explaining that I was prepared to prosecute parents if they broke the law by keeping their children out of school. I was surprised to discover that many parents didn’t know that California law makes education mandatory for children under the age of 18. Thousands of parents attended informational meetings on truancy after receiving the letter, and we fielded hundreds of calls from parents who had questions or needed help.

We also held face-to-face "D.A. Mediation" meetings with over 2,000 parents. Suddenly, the principals didn’t need to work so hard to convince parents to take seriously the consequences of keeping their child from school because a prosecutor was in the room. Through these mediations, we met parents in need of help to get their kids in school. One mother of three, for example, was homeless and holding down two jobs. We connected her to services so she could do what she wanted to do – be a good mother and put her children in school.

Mediations resulted in significant progress for most of the parents. Still, some continued to fail. In these cases, my office filed criminal charges. The children of these parents, some as young as six years old, had missed as many as 80 days of school out of a 180 day school year. Once we filed criminal charges, things started to change. Those parents report to a Truancy Court that combines consequences and support services to make sure that parents get their children in school.

Since we started this initiative, truancy rates for elementary school kids in San Francisco have dropped by 23 percent. And it did not take millions of dollars, bureaucratic red tape, or a decade to see results. It only took genuine commitment and a willingness to shake up the status quo.

What starts out as chronic truancy makes a child far more likely to end up dropping out of school, becoming a victim, or getting arrested. Taking swift corrective action now will reduce the likelihood of harmful and costly consequences later.

Childhood Trauma: Breaking the Silence to Help Children and Youth  

Last year in San Francisco, a teenage boy was gunned down while waiting outside a school for a ride. His senseless murder was witnessed by dozens of young students who were outside at the time. Months later, many of these youth had not accessed mental health support to recover from what they saw. Worse still, for some, it was likely not the first time they had witnessed violence. Some young people come from homes where violence is the norm, while others see violence in their neighborhoods far too frequently. The impact of repeated exposure to violence on children is enormous: they can’t concentrate in school, they’re detached, or they act-up and misbehave.

Like soldiers at war, children are highly likely to suffer from trauma from repeated exposure to violence. And like soldiers coming home, they often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, many of these children go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed and thereby not treated appropriately. Worse still, children repeatedly traumatized by violence at an early age are more likely to fall through the cracks and become either victims or perpetrators of violence later in life.

Studies have shown that up to 35 percent of children and youth exposed to community violence develop PTSD. Exposure to community violence affects everything from a child’s sleep, to their school success, to the physical development of their brains.

In the District Attorney’s Office, we often see the needs of children from distressed families or neighborhoods go untreated. To address these unmet needs, last year we joined with California State Senator Mark Leno to craft ground-breaking legislation to provide funding for mental health counseling for traumatized children and youth. Signed into law last year, our bill allows children who witness community violence to access up to $5,000 for therapy and mental health support.

When we look at children growing up in tough environments, we need to see them through a prism instead of a plate glass window. Left unaddressed, their complex and difficult surroundings can overwhelm their minds and harm their chances for future success. If we can recognize their needs and get timely help, we can substantially increase life prospects for these children before it’s too late.

What Needs to Happen Can Happen

These are just a few examples of what can be done to improve public safety and break the cycle of crime. Being smart on crime requires changing our thinking. Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." The State of California is at an economic crossroads that demands new approaches. I am confident that we can meet that demand through a long-term strategy of responsive, preventative and evidence-based "smart on crime" approaches, thereby ensuring a better and safer future for all of us.

This post was initially published at ACSblog: http://www.acslaw.org/node/13582

SF: How Kamala Built the Case Against Ed Jew

Not only was Kamala’s timing in charging Ed Jew interesting, but it looks like her investigators knew exactly where to go.

Sources close to the case said Tuesday that evidence collected included interviews with Jew’s neighbors — both on 28th Avenue and in Burlingame, where his family lives — as well as voter registration, Department of Motor Vehicle, utility and other records that would show where Jew had actually resided.

The conclusion was that Jew had owned property on 32nd Avenue in District 4 when he first ran for supervisor unsuccessfully in 2002, but that he had sold it soon afterward. By the following year, he was allegedly creating a paper trail for his subsequent run — among other things, registering to vote at the 28th Avenue address owned by his parents.

Yep, Kamala knew where those breadcrumbs were a long time ago. Everyone did, because Jew left them for everyone to see.