Congratulations on being elected San Francisco District Attorney. I wish you success. Your background, both personal and professional, has given you great insight into the physical and emotional toll that prison takes on those who commit a crime, as well as on their families and communities.
But I worry that you may be less sympathetic to the physical and emotional toll that victims, their families and their communities endure when, through no fault of their own, a crime is committed against them.
Your only experience is as a public defender. As such, you focused on offenders, their problems, and the impacts of trial and punishment on them and their families. But district attorneys are supposed to focus on the victims of crimes and the impacts of crime on them.
You say you want to focus prosecutions on violent crime where someone is physically hurt or killed. Those crimes definitely should be a priority. But victims of nonviolent crimes suffer emotional trauma — and sometimes significant financial loss — that can have a strong negative impact on their lives. Does their suffering not matter?
Consider car break-ins. You acknowledge that there are two broad categories of auto burglars — sophisticated criminal networks that work in teams, and homeless or addicted people who smash and grab out of desperation.
I agree that jail, without addressing the underlying problems, for the latter group is not effective at preventing future crimes. These people should be steered into treatment and other programs to help them get a handle on their lives.
But The City should go after the criminal syndicates, and I worry that you have given mixed signals on this. Your campaign website talks about establishing partnerships with other Bay Area law enforcement agencies to pursue these criminal networks. That makes sense.
But then you talk about not prosecuting nonviolent crimes. The criminal syndicates may hear that as an indication that they can commit burglaries without fear of consequences. Please make it clear that is not so.
I agree with you that the criminal justice system is not fairly applied, with poor or minority offenders subject to much harsher charges and punishments. And I agree that we need to address the underlying causes of crime, including addiction, mental health problems and the ravages of poverty. But I worry that too much focus on causes could allow some people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and avoid consequences for those actions.
You support restorative justice programs that focus on reconciliation between victims, offenders and the community. I think this could work with nonviolent, quality-of-life crimes, including car break-ins.
But you have said you plan to offer restorative justice to victims of all crimes, including violent ones. I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to ask a rape victim or a victim of domestic violence to sit down across the table from her rapist or abuser, especially if it’s not long after an attack. The potential for the woman to be re-victimized by a predator who is not genuinely remorseful is huge.
You say victims will be given the choice of whether to participate in restorative justice or not. But, given that it will be your signature program, how much pressure will be applied to a victim who wants no part of it to do it anyway?
You won 51 percent of the votes for DA that were left after three rounds of ranked choice voting. But that was only 42 percent of all the votes cast in the election (over 12,000 ballots left the DA contest blank, and others were dropped after their candidate was eliminated and they had no alternate choice listed).
You barely won, so you cannot claim any mandate for transformational change. The criminal justice system does need to be reformed, but please work with everyone in the community to do so, not just offenders.
You have said you want to meet with communities impacted by the actions of the DA’s Office. I hope that includes victims of nonviolent, quality-of-life crimes like car break-ins. And I hope you will support crime victims as passionately as you have defended the criminals. After all, that is your new job.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.
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