A Prosecutor’s Success Story: Change Without Labels

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Yolo County DA

Yolo County, population 200,000, is nestled between Sacramento and Solano Counties.

Every morning I receive an email from Kristine Hamann, executive director for “Prosecutors for Excellence,” a website that links to about 15 articles of interest with subjects ranging from innovative practices to criminal justice reform.  I generally read two or three each day that interest me.

On July 29, I saw one that grabbed my attention entitled “Can ‘Mainstream’ DAs Become Restorative Justice Supporters?” As the Chief Deputy at the Yolo County (California) District Attorney’s Office, I read the article from The Crime Report with great interest. Many would consider our District Attorney Jeff Reisig, now serving his fourth term, to be “mainstream,” yet we have numerous programs that rely heavily on restorative justice.

The article cited a Fordham Law Review article by Lara Abigail Bazelon of the University of San Francisco  School of Law and Bruce Green of the Fordham Law School.  Bazelon and Bruce seem to define “mainstream” as prosecutors who have served one or more terms, as compared to those who are newly elected.

I started thinking about our innovative and progressive programs and wondered “are we a really a ‘mainstream’ prosecutor’s office?”

Yolo is a county of 200,000 nestled between Sacramento and Solano counties.  We aren’t a large office: Our staff of 90 includes 30 deputy district attorneys, 12 sworn peace officers, five victim advocates and a diverse array of professional support staff.

But we are nimble, and ideas are quickly put into action.

We were the first DA’s office in California to go “paperless.” Attorneys bring laptops into court and there are no paper files.  We have an outstanding data system which is what non-profits who work with us really appreciate.

What the media and journal articles don’t report is that many “mainstream” prosecutors like ours are doing “progressive” things.  While the media reports on newly elected progressive prosecutors, they miss the many innovations by prosecutors who have been in office for a while and are thus labeled “mainstream.”

Jeff Reisig

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig

Our office has had a Neighborhood Housing Court (NHC) restorative justice program since 2013.  We started after DA Reisig told me we were going to take a field trip to the Bayview area of San Francisco.  We observed the SF DA’s office conducting NHC conferences and visited with the SF DA who proudly told us about his program.

We brought the Neighborhood Court program to Yolo and it has proved very successful.  We have received two sizeable Federal Justice Assistance grants.  These grants require an independent Local Evaluation Plan.  We have great measurable results which show a marked decrease in recidivism.

If participants successfully complete the program, and most do, they end up with no conviction on their record, as NHC is a diversionary program.  We started off taking low level misdemeanors as we “stuck our toe in the water.”

Currently we have many serious misdemeanors and in year three of our grant our goal is to divert 10 percent of our felony cases into NHC.  The NHC was recently featured in the American Bar Association’s quarterly journal.

We also offer restorative justice to our participants in the Mental Health and Addiction Intervention Court.

The role of the prosecutor is evolving everywhere. A few examples of “mainstream” prosecutors supporting Restorative Justice are: San Diego, CA, Jackson County, MO, Baton Rouge, LA, Oneida County, NY, Salt Lake City, Utah, Shelby County, Tennessee, and Solano County, CA.

But back to that “mainstream” label.

Our DA might not agree with Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s recently elected District Attorney, who was highlighted in Green and Bazelon’s article, on some issues.  But they are like-minded on many others.

Maybe “progressive” should really be redefined as “innovative.”

Following are some examples developed and instituted by our office:

Transparency Portal

We are working with the non-profit Measures for Justice (MFJ) to build a transparency dashboard portal so the public will be able to access all our data.  They will be able to look at arrests, charges, rejections, etc. by race and ethnicity.  The MFJ team has called what we are doing “unprecedented” and has stated we will be the “most transparent” DA’s office in the nation.

They have stated this will be a model they will take to DAs across the county. Here’s a YouTube account of what we are doing, as well as another description of it in the ABA Journal.

 ‘An Officer and a Mensch’

DA Reisig, along with the University of Oregon Police Chief Matt Carmichael, created a program for the homeless at the Glide Church in the Tenderloin in San Francisco.  We created this with Glide staff, including Rabbi Michael Lezak, the spiritual leader at Glide.

Frontline people (e.g., DAs and cops) attend a three-day program, where they learn empathy for the homeless through immersing themselves in the Tenderloin and at the Glide Church.  The program is called “An Officer and a Mensch.”

Recently a Los Angeles Times columnist imbedded herself with participants and wrote a great column about the program. And you can read more here.

Race-Blind Charging

We are working with Stanford University on a Race-Blind Charging program.  Stanford is writing computer code so all information identifying race in arrests reports is redacted before review by the charging deputy.

This reduces the chance of implicit bias. The San Francisco DA is also working with Stanford on a similar project.

Implicit Bias Training

We were the first DA’s office to require our attorneys to participate in a full day implicit bias training coordinated by a manager at the Museum of Tolerance in LA.  This was about three years ago.  We have another one planned for the fall.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

In March of 2019, our office was one of the very first DA’s offices in the country to partner with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative on a project to help prosecutors better leverage data in decision-making.

We invited their research team into our office to accept their evaluation, constructive feedback, and suggestions for how to improve the way we use our data. After the researchers’ two week-embed—including interviews with staff, and deep analysis and organization of our historical data and internal processes—we were able to extract insights and lessons for the future.

For example, while not the intended purpose of the collaboration, a preliminary analysis of the data did not reveal apparent disparities in declinations based on race for the time period of 2008-early 2019.

Multi-Cultural Council

yolo county

Members of Yolo County’s Multicultural Community Council

Over eight years ago, District Attorney Jeff Reisig, along with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jesse Ortiz, created the DA’s  Multi-Cultural Community Council (MCCC) as an advisory body of racially, religiously and culturally diverse residents.

Most recently, the MCCC convened numerous emergency meetings with the DA to discuss the horrific murder of George Floyd by a police officer and other terrible acts of racism and violence. Together, we released this powerful statement.

These are just a few of our innovative and progressive programs.

Jonathan Raven

Jonathan Raven

We are very proud of our achievements.

So, can a prosecutor who is not newly elected support Restorative Justice?

The answer, we believe, is “yes.”

We would be happy to share our Restorative Justice and other innovative programs with other offices.  As a matter of fact, this week, Prof. Jack Chin of King Hall Law school (UC Davis) asked me if I would speak to one of his former students, Laura Conover, who was just elected County Prosecutor in Arizona’s Pima County.

Conover is not a “mainstream” DA, yet Professor Chin wanted me to share our innovative and progressive programs with her. The point is: progressive evolution can take place without revolution.

Are we a “mainstream” office?  You be the judge.

Jonathan Raven has been a prosecutor at the Yolo County DA’s office and CA Attorney General’s office for over 24 years.  He has been the Chief Deputy for DA Jeff Reisig for the past 11 years.  Readers’ comments are welcome.

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