From tough on crime to holistic public safety efforts, the Inland Empire’s district attorneys and public defenders talked about the damage done by California’s criminal justice system, and discussed their own rehabilitation efforts at the March 9 meeting of the Hon. Joseph B. Campbell Inn of Court.
Michele Assael-Shafia, attorney and assistant professor at the University of La Verne College of Law, moderated the online discussion with 100 attendants.
“California was one of the nation’s leaders in tough on crime, with policies such as three strikes and you’re out, determinate sentencing, The STEP Act (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act), which helped with gang prosecution, and yet now California is at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration,” Assael-Shafia began.
Meetings are at 6 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month.
The state’s shift emerged from a 2011 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Plata, which demanded that California reduce its severely overcrowded prisons, Assael-Shafia said. The state’s three-strikes reform, Proposition 47, which recategorized some felonies as misdemeanors in 2014, and Proposition 57, which expanded parole opportunities and gave judges the power to charge juveniles as adults instead of prosecutors, are just some of the ways California has reshaped its criminal justice laws.
In 2018, the state changed the focus of the Penal Code from punishment to public safety through punishment, rehabilitation and restorative justice, Assael-Shafia said.
It’s completely different to do the work of a public prosecutor now, said Michael Hestrin, Riverside’s district attorney.
“We did probably over-incarcerate in the ‘90s, and I know that maybe a prosecutor shouldn’t say that, but I think probably we did. Some of the response to that has been a backlash, I think. Now I do think we’ve gone too far in the other way now, and I think we have lowered the consequences, lowered the accountability in California, to the point where it’s detrimental to public safety,” Hestrin said.
Riverside Public Defender Steven Harmon agreed that California is looking for the right criminal justice balance, but said that it’s too early to think the state has swung too far to the right.
“What we’re doing now is searching for the right balance. I think in the past, the pendulum swung too far into punishment, I think a lot of lives were ruined, I think it didn’t work, a lot of money was spent, lots of people were incarcerated, a lot of families were broken, and I think things were not going well,” Harmon said.
“My feeling is that the first part didn’t work, the second part, now, is in place, I think it’s far too soon now to give up hope on these things. The legislature has spoken. The legislature has passed all these bills, been supported by all the courts. I think that we can’t, and shouldn’t, give up on it just yet,” Harmon said.
San Bernardino District Attorney Jason Anderson said that balancing the victim’s interests against the defendant’s rights happens best at the local level through advocacy programs that take into account people, their records and their upbringings.
“I think if the public understood, and had a greater basis of how the local criminal justice worked, then I think at the local level we can achieve a lot of things that California wants to achieve on a much more global level, but they miss that balance, because they miss the nuances and intricacies of things that Mr. Harmon would know, that Mr. Sone would know, those things are lost,” Anderson said.
San Bernardino Public Defender Thomas Sone said his department has pivoted to helping its clients holistically a decade ago, and that the changes in laws do benefit their clients and the department’s goals, but that the state needs to focus on providing more funding to judicial officers, public defenders, district attorneys and treatment programs.
“We welcome these changes in the laws, but we can’t just change the laws without having the resources available, without having funding available. I call them unfunded mandates. We can’t be expected to try and release individuals and provide them resources if we don’t have the means to provide those resources,” Sone said.
Anderson said there should be a law requiring a number of judges for the number of cases in each county, due to Riverside and San Bernardino’s lasting judge shortage.
“You talk about access to justice, that’s the quickest and easiest way to fix, however you define access to justice, is tied to the number of cases administered,” Anderson said.
San Bernardino Superior Court has 3,057 case filings per judicial position per year, and Riverside Superior Court has 3,228 case filings per judicial position per year, according to the Judicial Council of California’s 2021 Court Statistics Report.
The statewide rate is 2,660 filings per judicial position per year, and Los Angeles County has 2,596 per judicial position per year. Nine of California’s 58 counties have a higher rate, with the highest being Inyo County at 4,001 filings per judge per year.
The Riverside District Attorney’s Office has a rehabilitation program that people can enter into after parole finishes, Hestrin said. The program provides a pathway to certificates of rehabilitation, expungements or pardons, and is intended to bring people back into the community after paying their debt to society, Hestrin said.
The San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office created a civil liberties curriculum for high schools, and just finished teaching four schools at six weeks each, Anderson said.
“So that they understand the rights they can exercise when they have street encounters, they understand the balance between when law enforcement may be contacting them, when there’s an overreach, what they can do about that overreach,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s office is also creating an approval program to give individuals exiting jails with low recidivism risk a stamp of approval from the district attorney’s office, to make employers feel more comfortable hiring them.
The San Bernardino Public Defender’s Office hosts job fairs with post-conviction relief options, like expungements, record claims and certifications of rehabs, for attendees, Sone said. The office has hosted three of these over the past year, and cumulatively helped more than 1,200 individuals, Sone said.
“Employers were making job offers on the spot,” Sone said.
The Riverside District Attorney’s Office, in response to California’s Racial Justice Act, has turned its case data over to statisticians at Claremont McKenna College to examine racial bias, and will begin releasing the college’s reports on their data to the public, said Hestrin. San Bernardino’s office will also analyze its data, said Anderson.
Harmon and Sone both said that racial bias also has to be examined within each individual.
Hestrin said the state is still finding its balance when it comes to drug prosecutions, and drug courts, an alternative court in which defendants of drug crimes are placed in a special rehabilitation program after pleading guilty
“Most prosecutors nowadays can buy into the fact that drug addicts shouldn’t be in prison. But doing nothing when someone is addicted and using drugs and all that comes with that is also not good for society. So there’s got to be some happy median there, and there’s got to be a consequence,” said Hestrin.
Anderson said the difficulty with treatment courts is with finding the people who are suitable for the program, and filtering out the unsuitable people who take space and resources away from the others.
Sone said drug courts’ suitability requirements should be expanded, so that defendants with long-term drug problems can go to the court even if their offense is not drug related.
The panel members regularly mentioned each other’s help in their rehabilitation programs.
“I think it’s important that we work together whenever we can,” Hirsten said.