Culture change in California judiciary must be collective effort

150 150 Jim Mayer

The process of reintegrating offenders begins here, not with their release (photo: Flickr/wblj)

In the courtroom – at least in the past – their goals collided.  The prosecutor knew her role, the public defender hers, and the judge’s his.

But in a conference room a block from the Capitol – with time rushing toward the next big step in California’s historic shift from mega prisons to community corrections – these pillars of the judicial system all declared that in the future they would need to have the same goal.

“We need to all agree that we are trying to re-integrate that offender into the community,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley.  “We need to all agree that we are trying to reduce recidivism, and reduce the jail population and improve public safety in our communities.”

Lisa Rodriquez, a deputy district attorney from San Diego County, agreed.  And so did Lesli Caldwell, the public defender of Solano County.

“The hope is that we will all do our jobs differently;” the prosecutor said. “We will have to work together.”

Local government officials have been implementing the 2011 “public safety realignment” one step at a time. First, some offenders who in the past would have gone to state prison, were added to county jails. Then some offenders who would have been released from prison to state supervised parole, became the responsibility of county probation departments.  Beginning July 1, county courts will deal with most parolees who violate the terms of their release from prison.

With each step, for more officials throughout the state, the need for an evidence-based community corrections strategy has become even greater.  Sheriff deputies, cops, probation officers, as well, have all faced a learning curve that looks like Half Dome.  And so on a Tuesday in March more than 50 public safety professional from 21 of California’s 58 counties thought through the best possible route.

“How many times in your lifetime have you seen this diverse of a group at a table talking about these issues?” said Rocklin Police Chief Ron Lawrence.  “It’s not really happening. … To sit in room with a public defender, health and human services, courts, the bench, sheriffs, DAs and have a discussion about where we go in California’s future. … I am just pleased to be at the table.”

The forum, sponsored by CA Fwd’s Partnership for Community Excellence, in one in a series of activities designed to tap the collective wisdom and innovation among county officials to anticipate and solve problems – to help each other up the cliff.  “Culture change begins in rooms like this,” one participant said. The presentations are online; discussion summaries and fact sheets will keep the learning going.  The offer is out from CA Fwd to work with counties that want to pick a problem and work it through to solution.

Tom Hoffman, who spent most of his career as a street cop and part of his time managing the state parole system, has worked on both sides of the swinging cell door.  He believes the new system can work better – provided that public safety officials deploy what has been learned and are committed to continuous improvement.

“There are a lot of people who we are mad at and there are some people we are afraid of,” Hoffman said.  The criminal justice system has the tools, the laws, the talent – and now the opportunity – to make the best use of available resources to reduce crime.

“We don’t have to stumble through this,” Hoffman said.  “There is a roadmap for how to handle the offender population.”

Jim Mayer is the Executive Director of California Forward


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