Commentary: Time for the Court System and DA’s Office to Be Hit with a Dose of Reality

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Yolo-Count-Court-Room-600This week I spent my Tuesday night watching the Davis City Council finally deal with their economic situation and make a move towards a more sustainable future, as they faced dead-on the reality of a decade that saw unfunded liabilities soar while we kept increasing salaries and retirement benefits.

On Thursday it was the school district’s turn, as they listened to one of the most ominous budgets one could imagine and then voted to ask the voters to help.

On Friday, over a week after Governor Jerry Brown’s sweeping prison reform proposal, it was business as usual in Yolo County Courts.  In the morning we heard that the DA’s Office and Probation Department are pushing for prison time for Michael Artz, as we reported on Saturday, for his crime of having sex with a 16-year-old when he was 18 years old.

But we are not finished.  In December we covered the trial of Jose Valenzuela, accused of stabbing and attempting to murder two individuals.  He was acquitted of the charges against one of the victims, but the jury hung 11-1 in his favor on the attempted murder charges for the second victim.

The DA continues to seek a plea agreement for 24 years in prison, and apparently is set to re-try him.  Never mind the results of the last trial.  Never mind the poor investigation of the police.  Never mind no witness saw him do it.  And never mind that DNA testing showed that blood on his shirt was not that of either victim. 

How one brutally stabs someone without getting their blood on them is beyond me.  11 of the 12 jurors agreed on this point, but here we are.

It is business as usual in Yolo County, despite the debate that is emerging over budget proposals from Governor Brown to radically reform the prison system.

Governor Brown is calling for an end to prison terms for thousands of convicts who are in prison for relatively minor crimes. 

These individuals would then be moved to county jails, and therein starts the debate.  As Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto was quick to complain last week, if adult convicts are released to Yolo County, Monroe Detention Center would be packed well beyond capacity.

“We don’t have the facility to handle it,” Prieto told the Daily Democrat.

The paper reports, “The county jail, which holds 450 inmates, could be asked to hold up to 800 inmates. He said the jail is at capacity all the time.  Unless Yolo County were to get a new facility, which Prieto said is unlikely, it’s not going to work.”

As the Sacramento Bee reported, Yolo County is not alone in lacking space to handle additional prisoners.

Writes the Bee on Tuesday, “Just as the state has struggled with prison overcrowding, some counties have had their own problems keeping inmates locked up. Statewide, tens of thousands of inmates are released early from county jails each year because of space constraints.”

The story continues, “Jails in 20 counties – including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado – are under court orders to release inmates when they become too crowded. Jails in the four counties often operate at or near capacity.”

The Bee reports that while “At least in theory, sheriffs don’t think the transfers are a bad idea. They agree with Brown that local government is better positioned to provide the service.  But in addition to overcrowding concerns, sheriffs are worried that funding won’t cover the cost of housing the transferred inmates, given the state’s financial troubles.”

There is a key point missed in this debate and it is the disconnect between the budget crisis and the policies of local counties to incarcerate people for relatively minor offenses, or to continue to use state and local resources to continue to try cases that they are not likely to win.

The cost of putting someone in prison in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation approaches $50,000 per year on average.  Counties offer a lot of advantages, including reduced costs and closer proximity of families.

That shift might work if the counties either had enough space or if they were given funding to increase capacity.

The current budget proposal does call for $1.5 billion to be shifted to counties for incarcerations and other additional costs, but it is not clear that this is enough money.

But even with that, the charging policies of this county, and likely other counties, simply do not make sense. Charging policies seek to maximize incarceration times, often at the expense of common sense.  We can go through a whole litany of cases that may have warranted prison time based on the offense, but the time they received was excessive.  Longer sentences contribute to higher costs and overcrowding.

Moreover, there are a host of crimes that really warranted probation and some sort of training program, rather than prison time.

We were told by a former drug counselor that Yolo County is one of the few counties to essentially double-charge simple possession cases, making them possession and transportation cases, which increases the costs to the system by a large margin.

Changes such as reforming drug laws, reducing charging, eliminating three strikes except in cases where the third strike was also a violent offense, and increasing money for training and drug treatment would go a long way.

Think about it, we spent maybe $7000 to $8000 per year on schooling for students but $47,000 a year to incarcerate someone.  That means we could invest in a whole other tier of education and job training and still save money on incarceration.

Recidivism in California is among the highest in the nation – why is that?  One of the goals of the new Attorney General is to reduce that rate, which is currently 71 percent.  A lot of that are 10,000 individuals each month who are serving time for parole violations, sometimes for pretty minor infractions.

For instance, we mentioned the case of Jose Valenzuela, who appears to be innocent of the current charges.  In addition to facing another court trial at state expense, he is now also facing a violation of probation charge for admitting in court that he had possessed some marijuana and a red belt.  So California taxpayers are now going to have to pay tens of thousands because of very minor violations of probation.

We are asking schools and local communities to do without, but we have allowed our court system to practice business as usual.  We can no longer afford this kind of system.  We need to find other ways to deal with people who do not represent direct threats to public safety.

Until we do, we will never get a handle on this budget crisis.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Commentary: Time for the Court System and DA’s Office to Be Hit with a Dose of Reality”

  1. Fight Against Injustice

    Come on….the jurors voted 11 to 1 for aquittal and the DNA doesn’t match, and still the DA wants to try this case again. Money seems to be no issue for the DA. I hope the tax payers are taking notice.

    I hope when the DA goes to the county budget meetings this year, that people question him on why he thinks it is important to spend their money to take these type of cases back to trial.

    What’s the motivation?

  2. Roger Rabbit

    The DA is about ego, winning, headlines and what’s in it for him. It is not his money. If anyone thinks the DA cares what the sheriff does they are fooling themselves.

    The is has increased his budget every year since he took office, he just hire new Dep DA’s and two Lt’s as Investigators. Money is no object since it ain’t his money.

    The Board is scared to say no to Reisig since they know what his will do and is capable of, so he bullies them just like he does his staff.

    For those who have never been in the closed door meetings, the Sheriff and DA play the same headlines and politics game, they consult each other and neither wants to make the other look bad. Many don’t know it but the DA is not a cop and cannot carry a gun, but the Sheriff gives the DA a weapons permit to carry. So the back scratching never stops.

  3. Fight Against Injustice

    Less than 10 months ago on April 6, 2010, the DA did a budget workshop where he emphasized the fact that he needed money for his department and couldn’t take any reductions even though the county was in a deficit. In the document he shared at this workshop, he states,

    “Program Effects and Impacts of Service Reductions (including impacts on other departments or agencies):
    The District Attorney is mandated by CA law to investigate and prosecute provable crimes in Yolo County. Further reductions to the criminal prosecution unit, beyond what the DA has proposed, will result in reduced public safety services, including the elimination of most misdemeanor prosecutions, juvenile prosecutions and white collar felony prosecutions. Reduced prosecution services will result in compromised public safety and a loss of quality of life for many citizens.

    If he is concerned that public safety will be reduced because of a lack of funds, then why does he push cases to trial again like this Valenzuela case when the jury was 11-1 for aquittal. It would seem to be a better use of taxpayers dollars to continue the investigation to find out who the true criminals in this case were.

    Obviously two people were stabbed. Someone did this. They have already shown that the blood on Valenzuela didn’t match the victims. Eleven jurors agreed that Valenzuela was innocent. Why waste the taxpayers money to continue this case? Why not use the money to investigate this crime better and get the right people?

  4. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “That shift might work if the counties either had enough space or if they were given funding to increase capacity.
    The current budget proposal does call for $1.5 billion to be shifted to counties for incarcerations and other additional costs, but it is not clear that this is enough money.”

    There is no way $1.5 billion is going to pay counties for new facilities to house all the state prisoners that are going to be sent their way…

    dmg: “Recidivism in California is among the highest in the nation – why is that? One of the goals of the new Attorney General is to reduce that rate, which is currently 71 percent. A lot of that are 10,000 individuals each month who are serving time for parole violations, sometimes for pretty minor infractions.”

    And how does the AG propose to reduce recidivism? By not putting parole violaters in jail? Or does he have something else in mind?

    dmg: “We are asking schools and local communities to do without, but we have allowed our court system to practice business as usual. We can no longer afford this kind of system. We need to find other ways to deal with people who do not represent direct threats to public safety.”

    I would argue “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. It would be far cheaper to provide after school programs, etc. to keep our youth out of trouble…plus we need to do some serious soul searching on the border issue – where the criminal element/drugs are coming in from the south…

  5. Mind_hunter53

    [quote]Changes such as reforming drug laws, reducing charging, eliminating three strikes except in cases where the third strike was also a violent offense, and increasing money for training and drug treatment would go a long way.[/quote]

    Enabling crime machines to continue victimizing the community is unlikely to save money — and will increase victims.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    mh53: “Enabling crime machines to continue victimizing the community is unlikely to save money — and will increase victims.”

    Good point…

  7. Iyah

    I find it strange that only one person has pointed out the ridiculousness of refiling a case against someone where the DNA did not match. This is not only a huge waste of time and tax dollars – but it is revictimizing the victims by not finding the real perpetrator and putting the whole community at risk. The best use of tax dollars to protect the public is to find the real criminals.

  8. Iyah

    This is reminiscent of the case a few months ago where the witness asked where the shooter was. It came out the real shooter was in Mexico and it was easier to frame the person who was here and ignore the facts. This is not protecting the public. Protecting the public is getting the right people. And those of you who say the DA’s office didn’t know. Reread the articles – at the very end of the police interview the informant’s girlfriend reveals who the real shooter was, but obviously this ignored by the DA’s office.

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