Can a Prosecutor-Led Program Tackle Recidivism?
Community members are cautiously optimistic, but wary of the program’s emergence during election season.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley is conducting an unusual experiment in Alameda County, California. Starting the week of September 24th, a small group of 18 to 24-year-olds with certain felony charges and convictions entered an intensive case management program designed to ensure that they won’t return to the D.A.’s office. Partnering with multiple community-based organizations, the new “Justice Restoration Project” is funded by a mix of federal, state, county, and private donors. The Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab has been working with O’Malley since 2015 to develop the program.
“Rather than placing people on probation and taking a bit of a ‘wait and see’ attitude, we’re trying to turn that paradigm on its head and say, ‘We’re going to actively participate with your life now,’” says Teresa Drenick, a spokesperson and Deputy District Attorney in O’Malley’s office.
Young men and women in the program — who participate voluntarily after consulting with their lawyer — are paired with community service providers who tailor an intensive case management program “to meet each individual where they are,” says Drenick. Participants are then supervised for 18 months. One of those community partners is La Familia Counseling Service, a mental health and community services organization serving Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Eric von Geldern, the deputy district attorney whose full-time job is managing the Justice Restoration Project, notes that La Familia will meet with each individual and their family to best assess what services they need and help them navigate the bureaucracy of post-incarceration life, or life on probation. The D.A. determines eligibility for the program before participants meet with La Familia, and has the final say on who can take part in the program.
The project is open only to people who already have a criminal record in addition to their current felony case, in hopes of specifically serving people who repeatedly come into contact with the criminal justice system. Ineligible felony charges and convictions include “anything involving guns, sexual assault, elderly crime, or any injuries,” according to von Geldern. The list of eligible offenses does include some felonies classified by the state as violent, such as certain robberies.
“We’re trying to include those persons even though on paper it’s a very serious crime, and let those people have another chance,” says von Geldern.
While many of the program’s facets sound great in theory, intense monitoring and supervision from government and community entities could easily be a turn-off to some potential participants. In the absence of a program like this, probation alone can already be an overwhelming experience with a litany of court-ordered rules and conditions. Drenick acknowledged this possibility, noting that when she previously worked in the D.A.’s drug court, she regularly encountered “low-level drug offenders who would say ‘I’d rather sit in jail than work with your drug counselors for a year.’”
In spite of that potential pitfall, von Geldern says that while the program is in its very early beta phase, “it has been extremely well-received” by all who have reviewed it, including defense attorneys. (The Alameda Public Defender declined to comment.)
Still, some are wary. Prince White, deputy director of the Oakland-based youth leadership organization Urban Peace Movement, told In Justice Todaythat he is “a little bit suspect, but cautiously optimistic.” White directs a program specifically geared toward 16 to 24-year-old black men who are formerly incarcerated or have been impacted by violence, trauma, or the justice system. Participants in White’s program join voluntarily, meet weekly for support, and organize around social justice issues in their community.
White has a close eye on O’Malley’s program because he has been working closely with one of its participants for months: 17-year-old Dajon Ford. Ford spent nearly four years in Santa Rita County Jail awaiting trial while facing robbery and attempted robbery charges and being held on $1.8 million bail. White took an interest in his case after learning Ford would be tried as an adult and offered a “deal” of 14 years in prison by the D.A.’s office, and organized a rally that took place in late June. He gathered signatures of support and campaigned to pressure O’Malley’s office to offer a lighter sentence and to transfer Ford to juvenile court before his mid-August court date.
At the beginning of September, Ford was given informal probation and agreed to four felony charges that can be reduced to misdemeanors within two years and ultimately expunged. (Ford is now represented by White’s wife, Claire White.) White picked Ford up from jail after his release, bought him clothes, and hired him to work at his organization. O’Malley’s program was announced Sept. 24, within a month of Ford’s release. “There’s been a rash of petty thefts and robberies with guns that are very serious,” says White. “But we can’t throw these kids’ lives away, or spend another $75,000 to put them in prison for 10 years.”
White thinks that the DA’s program has the potential to help young people like Ford, but he is worried about follow-through. The program was designed with high hopes of reducing recidivism in Alameda County, but it remains to be seen if the project will be fully implemented and funded over time. O’Malley’s program emerged during election season; she is actively campaigning for reelection next June. White points out that the D.A.’s office must continue to dedicate the resources (such as a full-time Deputy D.A.) necessary to see it succeed. “She’s telling us she wants this to be very serious,” White says, “But do her actions match?”
Seemingly progressive programs and policy initiatives introduced by D.A.s in counties across the country have similarly carried promise, but ultimately fallen through or been little more than window dressing. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, former D.A. Ken Thompson made waves in 2010 when he vowed to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana cases. After his death, his replacement and current D.A. Eric Gonzalez continued the policy. But in practice, low-level marijuana prosecutions fell only from 90 percent to 82 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to a WNYC investigation.
Conviction review units, too, have fallen flat in some jurisdictions. Created with the promise of reevaluating old, questionable cases with the goal of overturning wrongful convictions and freeing innocent people, those efforts have been abandoned or defunded in places like New Orleans. And in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, a “deferred prosecution program” that would relieve nonviolent offenders of their criminal records has ultimately proven unaffordable for many of its intended participants.
Still, Deputy D.A. von Geldern’s enthusiasm and optimism is palpable. As of October 24, the program had eight participants, and 12 more who “have been identified as candidates” and will be able to participate after they are released from jail. The pilot phase, which goes through the end of 2017, will be open to a total of 29 people. In January, the program aims to serve 150 participants. Of those who sign up, some will be randomly selected to receive the full service, while others will be placed in a control group that will enable funders to measure the project’s efficacy, which will be measured by examining recidivism among participants.
“Eventually this will become a program for everybody, but we need to show in terms of the grant that there’s success,” says von Geldern. “We’re doing this with the idea that this will be a successful way to transform our justice system.”
White of Urban Peace Movement is supportive of the concept of intensive case management, but says he isn’t yet sure how that will actually play out for participants like Ford, and is wary of the possibility that the program will echo traditional probation programs, which are adversarial in nature.
“I want it to be good, and I want it to work for our people,” he says. “We really want to have something that’s culturally competent, and community based.”