Santa Clara DA Unveils ‘Bend the Arc’ Social Justice Reforms, Abandons Death Penalty

Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen

By Linh Nguyen

SANTA CLARA – Nearly two months after the killing of George Floyd, Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen has announced—as have other DA offices nationwide—social justice reforms that his office is implementing which will address racial discrimination and promote equity within the criminal justice system.

This first set of reforms in this effort, called “Bend the Arc,” contains 26 policy and practice changes. The DA said that the reforms came after spending the last several weeks listening to community leaders, criminal justice reform advocates, elected officials, neighborhood activists and prosecutors in his own office.

“We call this effort ‘Bend the Arc.’ The phrase—taken from a 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech in which he said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ has become a guiding light in this DA’s office,” Rosen said.

“It gives us a powerful reminder that we can’t just sit back and wait and hope that justice happens. It won’t. We have to actively, purposely and intentionally seek justice and pursue justice to achieve justice,” he added.

Rosen listed notable criminal justice reforms at a press conference, including working to end cash bail in California, ending the request of fines and fees from indigent defendants, the end of filing charges of Driving on a Suspended License for Failure to Pay Fines and Fees in Superior Court (these cases will be filed in Traffic Court as infractions) and expunging criminal records of those who are eligible and successfully completed probation.

The DA’s office will also create a fund using illegal money seized from criminals to award to organizations successfully addressing race and inequity in the community and create a Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team to investigate criminal misconduct of police officers.

Perhaps the most notable announcement by DA Rosen, who has supported the death penalty in the past, announced he will no longer seek the death penalty.

“In the past, I supported the death penalty when I viewed the heinous murders through the eyes of the victims whose lives had been taken and from their families that might never find peace,” Rosen said. “But, I also trusted as a society we could ensure the fundamental fairness of the legal process for all people.

“With every exoneration, with every stop of racial injustice, it becomes clearer to me that this is not the world we live in. These cases use up massive public resources and cruelly drag on for years with endless appeals giving no finality to the victims’ families. There is the tragic but real risk of wrongful conviction. And shamefully, our society’s most drastic and devastating law enforcement punishment has been used disproportionately against defendants of color.”

In the past, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office has pursued the death penalty in four cases. In two of the cases, Rosen rescinded the charge. In the other two cases, the juries rejected the penalty.

Before Rosen made his announcements at the news conference, San Jose Police Officers’ Association union president Paul Kelly criticized Rosen’s policy changes, calling them “reckless” and “politically motivated.

“Jeff Rosen has just issued an open invitation to every drunk driver, criminal and violent gang member to resist arrest, impede investigations and openly challenge every police officer in our county,” Kelly said in a statement. “While the rest of the county is working to de-escalate dangerous interactions between police and the community, Jeff Rosen is purposely escalating confrontations that will only lead to increased uses of force and injuries or worse to police officers.”

Meanwhile, Santa Clara Public Defender Molly O’Neal commended Rosen’s reform proposals. Earlier this week, O’Neal called on the San Jose Police Department to make changes to police oversight.

“We are thrilled to see that the district attorney is abandoning further death penalty prosecutions and knows that justice is better served without the state engaging in killing for the sake of showing that killing is wrong,” said O’Neal. We look forward to further criminal justice reform and welcome this move by our district attorney.”

An updated report compiled by the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office analyzes race and prosecutions in the county. It finds that, unsurprisingly, African American and Latinx communities are vastly disproportionately arrested and prosecuted.

In 2018, Hispanic and Black races accounted for less than 30 percent of the county’s population while White and Asian races accounted for two-thirds of the county’s population. Yet, those statistics are reversed when calculating the percent of charges filed.

“We know that our County’s defendant population is not reflective of the community, insofar as there is a persistent overrepresentation of Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino people charged with crimes,” Rosen wrote in the report. “Make no mistake: there is a problem of disproportionality within the criminal justice system of Santa Clara County.”

The “Bend the Arc” reforms aim to reduce these racial disparities in the county’s justice system.

Other “Bend the Arc” reforms are community initiatives, which include a Worker Exploitation Task Force, Victim Services Office Hours with community-based organizations and diversion alternatives to incarceration (primary care, mental health diversion, young adult diversion and home detention).

As for internal policies and practices, the District Attorney’s Office will give more weight to race and equity issues with filing charges, make the “Brady List” available to prosecutors when making filing decisions, host training about yearly race and prosecution study and diversion programs and sentencing alternatives, and create a staff lawyer rotation through the Conviction Integrity Unit.

There is also a shorter section that outlines robust and independent review of criminal police misconduct. The District Attorney’s Office will review all body worn camera footage before issuing charges.

Following this release of reform proposals, the public awaits a formal roadmap to achieving the outlined goals.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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