Responding to an outpouring of concern about systemic racism in criminal justice, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced Wednesday that his office will no longer seek the death penalty, that it will form a new unit to investigate police misconduct and that it will work to eliminate cash bail in California.
The moves are part of a broad slate of reforms that Rosen unveiled July 22 as part of his office's "Bend the Arc" initiative. The list of reforms includes closer partnerships between prosecutors and communities, new guidelines for prosecutors to consider race and equity issues when filing charges and no longer seeking fines and fees from indigent defendants. The office also will automatically expunge the criminal records of those defendants who have completed probation, obviating the need for a costly legal process.
He also said the office will now be using asset forfeiture — money seized from drug traffickers, criminal organizations and gang members — to create a grant program for community groups that are working to address racial equity.
Rosen said his office has developed the slate of reforms after two months of listening to community members, criminal justice reformers and members of his own office expressing concerns and asking him what he'll do now. The new initiatives, he said are part of a first slate of reforms in response to what he has heard.
"We are moving with urgency because injustice demands urgency, but we will not stop moving forward," Rosen said.
Among the most dramatic moves in the package of reforms is the decision to no longer seek the death penalty. Rosen said that he has taken two recent trips to Montgomery, Alabama, and has reflected on the devastation caused by slavery, Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration.
"In the past, I supported the death penalty when I viewed the hideous murders through the eyes of victims whose lives have been taken from their families that might never find peace. But I also trusted that as a society we can ensure the fundamental fairness for the legal process of all people," Rosen said. "With every exoneration, with every story of racial injustice, it becomes clear to me that this is not the world we live in."
California has already suspended the death penalty after Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted a moratorium on executions. Rosen said that if the moratorium were to end, he would revise the sentences of roughly 20 individuals from Santa Clara County who are now on death row.
Other reforms center on individuals who were convicted of lesser crimes. It will no longer treat "driving on a suspended license" or "failure to pay fines and fees" as misdemeanors but make them infractions. Rosen noted that all of the office's criminal cases have a disproportionately high percentage of Latino and African American defendants. The change, he said, aims to address that.
"By removing a large number of these cases from criminal court, and moving them instead to traffic court as infractions (like speeding tickets), we reduce the overall number of cases within the criminal justice system, and by so doing have a disproportionately positive impact on communities of color," he said.
Rosen said about 4,000 people get charged for these misdemeanors annually, making them the most charged crimes. The cases will now be filed in traffic court, he said.
He also said the office's effort to automatically expunge the criminal records of those who have successfully completed probation similarly seeks to address racial inequities. The difficulty of getting the expungement — which requires a court petition — greatly impacts Latino and African American residents.
"Too many people are experiencing barriers to getting a job or advancing in a career because of an old conviction that is eligible for expungement, but only after going through a lengthy and time-consuming court petition process," Rosen said.
With the reform, people with convictions on their record will no longer need to hire lawyers or petition courts. Once they complete probation, the record would be expunged, he said.
Other changes pertain to the office and how it conducts prosecutions. Rosen emphasized that prosecutors are changing their approach to determining who should be prosecuted and for what. Every year, he said, the office reviews more than 30,000 cases. It evaluates whether a crime has been committed and whether the office can prove it to a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, instead of "What can we prove?," the prosecutors will be asking, "What should we prove?" and considering race and equity.
The seemingly minor policy change will have "significant and positive changes in the way all of our 200 prosecutors handle their cases," he said. The office also will allow defense attorneys to submit, any time before a trial, information about the social history of the defendant and any mitigations that should be considered.
"We may handle 30,000 cases a year, but each defendant is a human being, a member of our community, entitled to dignity and respect, and who deserves the understanding of their life and circumstances," Rosen said.
Rosen's announcement comes at a time when law enforcement officials throughout the country, including in Palo Alto, are tackling the issues of police reform and social justice. Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission will be issuing recommendations on Wednesday night, July 22, on potential changes to Palo Alto Police Department policies and the City Council has recently launched an effort to review the city's public safety model and promote inclusiveness.
The city also has been at the forefront of controversy when it comes to police misconduct thanks to two recent lawsuits filed by residents. Rosen's office is still investigating the conduct of retired Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the supervisor who was involved in the violent arrest of Gustavo Alvarez, an incident that led to a $572,500 settlement from the city.
Rosen said that as part of the reform effort, his office will create a Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team, which will work closely with independent police auditors and Internal Affairs units in all law enforcement agencies in the county to investigate police misconduct. The team will have two to three prosecutors and one to two investigators. It will be charged with, among other tasks, proactively training law enforcement agencies about what incidents should be forwarded to the District Attorney's Office.
Rosen also pledged to work to eliminate cash bail, which he says discriminates against low-income individuals who are disproportionately African American and Latino. It's unfair, he said, for a wealthy but dangerous person to buy freedom. Similarly, it's unfair for a poor person who is not dangerous to be deprived of theirs.
"We were asking the wrong question: How much money does a defendant have? Now we will ask the right question: Is this person safe to release from jail before trial? If the answer is, 'Yes,' he will be released and supervised, no matter how poor. If the answer is, 'No, this person is dangerous,' this person will be held in jail, no matter how rich."
Watch the press conference here: