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Will Contra Costa County’s next District Attorney commit to criminal justice reform?

Will Contra Costa County’s next District Attorney commit to criminal justice reform?

After 10 years under the reign of Mark Peterson, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office will finally get a much-needed facelift. In September, the county’s Board of Supervisors will have a chance to pick an interim district attorney who might better represent the interests of the California’s seventh largest county.

It might seem an easy task to follow Peterson’s act: the scandal-ridden D.A. resigned in June after being detained on felony perjury and grand theft charges, and admitted to embezzling $66,000 in campaign funds for personal use. In many ways, it would be a challenge to look worse than Peterson. But assuming the 12 candidates intend to avoid such scandals, they have a bigger task ahead — finally leading the office toward the criminal justice reform initiatives the community has supported for years.

On August 12, the five finalists participated in a public forum, answering policy questions from community members and stakeholders. Diana Becton, Paul Graves, Thomas Kensok, Brad Nix, and Patrick Vanier touched oneverything from the death penalty, to immigration, to police misconduct.

The issues discussed at the forum matter not just because they reflect a growing national awareness of prosecutors’ roles in mass incarceration and the power they can wield in leading criminal justice reform, but because Contra Costra County voters have been ignored on this front for years. During his tenure, Peterson repeatedly voted against the interests of the electorate on criminal justice reform issues. The former D.A. opposed Prop. 47Prop. 36, and Prop. 57, all of which were supported by the majority of voters in his county. Peterson, a staunch “law-and-order” prosecutor, also denied the existence of racism in the criminal justice system.

Now the county’s board of supervisors can assess which candidate will promise to turn things around and restore public trust in the D.A.’s office before the public votes in June 2018. Some of the contenders seem well aware of the issues Peterson ignored or denied: Diana Becton, Patrick Vanier, and William Green have all been vocal about their commitment to reducing racial disparities in law enforcement.

“We need to put more resources towards data so we can find out who is being stopped and the reasons for those stops, so we can evaluate whether there’s disparate treatment,” said Becton at the forum.

All five candidates promised to prosecute law enforcement who engage in misconduct as they would any other citizen. Brad Nix suggested requiring deputy prosecutors to participate in trainings at the local police academy to reduce misconduct. Becton’s suggestion that officers be required to undergo de-escalation training was met by applause from an otherwise quiet audience. When it came to the death penalty, none of the five candidates promised never to use it. Short of a full commitment to abandon capital punishment, they acknowledged that they would only use it in the most severe cases. Tom Kensok promised to “cut back dramatically” on death penalty cases.

The candidates were also pressed on their stances on bail reform, specifically their support for S.B. 10. The bill, which passed the California senate with bipartisan support in May, would require a pretrial services agency to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether detaining a person is necessary for public safety, and when detention was deemed necessary, would require courts to set the least restrictive amount of cash bail possible to ensure a defendant’s return to court. Only Vanier explicitly gave his support for the bill, calling the county’s current cash bail system “inequitable.” Paul Graves called the bill “unconstitutional,” but said he would support broader bail reform efforts. Becton dodged a yes or no answer when asked if she supported it, but said that “D.A.s should be leading the discussion when it comes to bail reform.”

Last week, Becton and Kensok admitted to the East Bay Times that they had plagiarized parts of their applications for the position. It’s unclear how this revelation might impact the board of supervisors’ decision.

Sunday’s forum made clear that some of the candidates have noticed which issues Peterson disregarded, regardless of their significance to the community. Criminal justice reform in Contra Costa County is overdue, and whomever becomes the county’s next top cop has a chance to bring the kind of change the community has supported for years. If the most innovative and progressive contenders genuinely intend to implement the reforms they spoke of this past weekend, the future for Contra Costa County may be bright.

Former Indianapolis prosecutor will not be disciplined despite findings of misconduct

Former Indianapolis prosecutor will not be disciplined despite findings of misconduct

A prosecutor who worked for Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry will not face discipline despite findings of prosecutorial misconduct in two separate criminal cases.

Former Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Gillian DePrez Keiffner was the lead prosecutor in two criminal cases where the Indiana Court of Appeals found that Keiffner committed misconduct.

In Brandon Brummet’s case, the appellate court said that Keiffner repeatedly made derogatory comments about Brummett’s lawyers in front of the jury. As the court explained, “Here, the prosecutor not only impugned the integrity of defense counsel but also suggested that the role of defense lawyers was to help guilty men go free.” The court also found that Keiffner improperly vouched for the credibility of a prosecution witness and inappropriately commented “on the justness” of the prosecution. Finally, the court found that Keiffner committed misconduct by unfairly badgering Brummett when he testified in his own defense — at one point asking him to say which girl he “enjoyed touching” more. The court vacated Brummett’s convictions, a decision that was later affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court.

In Bruce Ryan’s case, the Court of Appeals said that Keiffner committed misconduct by suggesting to jurors that Ryan wanted a jury trial “to try to get away with his crime,” telling jurors that the defense argument was a “trick” designed to let “guilty people go free,” and urging jurors to convict Ryan in order “to send the message that we’re not going to allow people to do this.” Although the Court of Appeals vacated Ryan’s convictions, the Indiana Supreme Court later reversed course, finding that the misconduct didn’t rise to the level of “fundamental error.”

A bar complaint was filed against Keiffner due to her behavior in both cases and the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission sought disciplinary action against her. Although the Court of Appeals had found prosecutorial misconduct in the underlying criminal cases, that fact alone was not enough to result in disciplinary action against Keiffner.

Despite finding that the Disciplinary Commission had not met its burden of proof against Keiffner, the Indiana Supreme Court emphasized that Keiffner’s conduct was inappropriate:

We caution that by no means should our opinion today be read as an endorsement of Respondent’s actions. For the reasons outlined in Ryan and Brummett, we continue to disapprove of arguments that invite a conviction for reasons other than a defendant’s guilt, impugn the integrity of defense counsel, or otherwise create a “good guy / bad guy dichotomy” between the respective roles of the State and defense counsel.

According to the Indianapolis Star, “Of the approximately 550 criminal cases that were appealed in Marion County from January 2012 to July 2014, the Court of Appeals reversed only two because of prosecutorial misconduct, according to the prosecutor’s office. And both involved Keiffner. “

Keiffner previously received a reprimand from the Indiana Supreme Court after she was arrested for drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident in July 2009, and ended up pleading guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving. She resigned as a prosecutor following that incident but later rejoined the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in 2010 after Curry was elected. She is now in private practice.

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California’s district attorneys at odds with voters over criminal justice reform

District attorneys want to keep an outdated system alive.

California’s district attorneys at odds with voters over criminal justice reform

District attorneys want to keep an outdated system alive.

new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fair Punishment Project shines a light on elected district attorneys in California who are frequently at odds with their constituents. According to the report, which goes hand in hand with the ACLU’s new ‘Hey, Meet Your DA!’ campaign, these elected officials continue to ignore voters’ desire to rethink law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the Golden State.

According to the report, Californians passed four ballot measures between 2012 and 2016 to make the criminal justice system less harsh. They voted to reform the state’s notorious Three Strikes Law, which imposed mandatory 25-year sentences for three-time felons, no matter what their crimes were. Voters also legalized recreational marijuanareclassified multiple property and drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, supported more parole opportunities for prisoners, and empowered judges to decide whether or not kids should be funneled into juvenile or adult courts. But the vast majority of the state’s 58 elected district attorneys opposed the measures; none of the issues on the table received support from more than three of the prosecutors.

The report highlights why this discrepancy between voters’ and district attorneys’ policy positions matters. In California and every other U.S. state, district attorneys are fueling mass incarceration. They decide whether or not a person should be charged for an offense and what those charges should be, which can have a huge impact on possible sentences. In the past year few years, Californians have ultimately voted to reduce the number of people behind bars and reconsider who should be sent there in the first place. And yet district attorneys are overwhelmingly against such an overhaul of the system, favoring tough-on-crime law enforcement over diversion, rehabilitation, and second chances.

“For decades district attorneys and prosecutors have been the primary drivers of America’s devastating mass incarceration problem, operating with little transparency,” Bill Cobb, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a press release.

But despite their immense influence on law enforcement and public safety in local communities, district attorneys aren’t typically on the minds of people headed to the voting booth. Unlike police officers patrolling the streets and making arrests every day, district attorneys have minimal contact with the communities they serve. They typically operate behind closed doors and aren’t forthcoming about their decision-making, meaning the hundreds, thousands, and sometimes millions of people under their jurisdiction know very little about who they are and what they do. Voters subsequently don’t realize that these government officials are adamantly opposed to change.

The ACLU hopes its new campaign will help constituents better understand the role that district attorneys play in their respective communities. ‘Hey, Meet Your DA!’ features a profile of every district attorney in California, breaking down when they entered office and their positions on each of the four ballot measures.

“This campaign is important, because it’s imperative that voters in California are equipped with the information and tools they need to effectively engage their district attorneys and know how to hold them accountable for problematic practices and unjust systems,” said Cobb.

Between 2010 and 2015, California’s prison population declined drastically, in large part due to voters supporting the four criminal justice policy proposals. But there are still 131,363 in-state prisoners who are disproportionately Black and Latino and cost the state $75,560 a year — each. For the number of prisoners to continue to fall, California residents can vote for additional policy changes that make the system more fair. But they must also know who their district attorneys are, what these prosecutors stand for, and vote for the candidate who best represents their interests.

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