David Onek, a leading advocate for criminal justice system reforms in San Francisco and around the country, is currently running to be the next District Attorney for the city of San Francisco. If he wins, he will emerge as one of the country’s most progressive big-city DAs, at a moment when fiscal crisis is forcing a fundamental reimagining of our criminal justice priorities. I recently sat down with Onek to talk about his agenda. —Sasha Abramsky
How has the criminal justice system in California changed during your career, and do you think it’s heading in the right direction?
My first job out of college was working at Waldon House Adolescent Facility, counseling delinquent kids who also had mental health and substance issues. It’s one of the big rehabilitation programs in San Francisco. I got a lot of hands-on experience working with delinquent youth, counseling them, assisting in the classroom and interacting with them. I still think back to those kids when I think of policy decisions I make today. Unfortunately, we are spending less and less, and spending less effectively, on the types of programs that can help kids turn their lives around, and wasting huge amounts of money on the deep end, waiting till kids get in very serious trouble and then locking them up as adults for long periods of time, at tremendous cost to our state.
In California, we’ve embarked on the biggest prison-building binge in history, and we’re paying the price for it. We have what can only be described as an absolute fiscal crisis. The number-one driver of that crisis is the cost of prisons. Meanwhile, teachers are getting pink slips, police are being laid off, social services are being cut. We should be investing in schools. We should be investing in police officers who walk the beat. We should be investing in social services.
What strategies do you think are most effective when it comes to criminal justice reform?
My career has been about bringing law enforcement and community together to build collaborations around practical, common-sense solutions to criminal justice issues. I’ve been fortunate to have strong relationships with both the law enforcement community and the advocacy community. So when I’m starting to work on an issue, I have the credibility to bring people together, and they’ll agree to come even if they’re nervous about it because of the trust I’ve built up over the years. It’s a two-pronged approach: working collaboratively and making decisions based on data, research, best practices—looking at what works in a dispassionate way and making decisions accordingly.
How does your recent work at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice fit into this?
I left the [San Francisco] mayor’s office of criminal justice to go to Berkeley. Our dean, Chris Edley, who’s absolutely wonderful, wanted to start a number of policy centers, to connect the law school to real-world issues. It sounds very straightforward, but what Chris wanted to do was quite unusual for a law school. They asked me to start the criminal justice center there. It was very much as we’ve talked about, to start a center that would be focused on bringing law enforcement and community together to build collaboration around practical criminal justice solutions. We did that across a number of projects.
One of our first projects focused on employment opportunities for people with prior convictions. A bunch of advocates were already getting together to talk about this issue. The ACLU was there, public defenders offices, legal service agencies, formerly incarcerated advocates, kind of the usual suspects. They asked me to come to this small strategy session to weigh in on how they could come up with a statewide strategy. I listened to everyone and then said, “Look, you’re all doing great work here, but you’re preaching to the choir. You’re never going to get the change you want unless you bring law enforcement to the table as well.” I thought I might get booed out of the room, but a number of people came up to me at the break and said, “You’re exactly right, but we have no idea how to do that. We don’t have any relationship with law enforcement, we don’t have any mechanism to work with them. Can you help us?” I said, “Well, I just started a center to do exactly that.”
You’re doing a lot of interesting work in the nonpolitical arena. Why trade all of that in for months of campaigning?
The bottom line is that one of the biggest problems we’ve had is the lack of political leadership and the lack of political courage on these issues. I can do so much more as an elected district attorney to affect the issues I care about and the people I care about, and to make us safer, than I can on the outside. It’s just that simple. Let’s take three strikes, for example: as the elected DA of San Francisco, my policy would be to only charge serious and violent crimes as third strikes. That’s discretionary—that’s a decision that every district attorney makes. So having someone in the leadership who is willing to stick out their neck out is really crucial.
Let me push you on that. Steve Cooley, the former DA of Los Angeles, was out front on reforming three strikes. Cooley was a Republican; no one could accuse him of being soft on crime, and presumably he had a lot of clout. But he got nowhere. If you were DA, how would you be able to overcome the obstacles to reform on three strikes, or an array of other policies?
Obviously, in San Francisco, we can make our own decisions, and the DA has certain discretion. At the statewide level, times have changed. There is a growing movement afoot to go to the ballot in 2012 and reform three strikes. The estimate from the state comptroller is that it’s going to cost $4.8 billion to lock up nonviolent three strikers over the next twenty-five years. It comes out to about $200 million a year, and that’s a conservative estimate. We can’t afford these policies that do not make us safer. I think the stars are definitely aligned now, no question about it. This is a key moment to turn a terrible situation into a positive thing in terms of resetting our priorities to where they should have been in the first place.
Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposal notes fairly explicitly that the state is going to devolve certain criminal justice responsibilities to localities. What do you think about that?
We cannot simply cut the prison system and put all that money toward deficit reduction. If we’re going to be sending people back to the counties for incarceration and rehabilitation, some of that money must follow them back so that the counties can provide the services and supervision required for them to be at the county level. Now, there are lots of advantages to having people at the county level. Having people closer to home, to where there’ll be re-entering, it’s much easier for them to stay in contact with their families, to begin to reintegrate into the community. It’s a best practice to keep people as close to their communities as possible. It’s also a best practice to have people in the least restrictive setting as possible, and particularly I’m talking about juveniles. But all of that costs money—a lot less than locking someone up in a state prison, but still, to provide the supervision to keep us safe and to provide the services to help people turn their lives around is going to cost money. And the counties are just as bankrupt as the state. So the money must follow.
A generation ago, you had a lot of people saying, "We’re going to release people from mental health institutions, but we’re not going to do it on the cheap." But then the temptation was too great, and the money was raided, and you had a lot of mentally ill people on the street, and they’re now a part of the criminal justice system. How do you prevent that scenario from happening with the prisons?
That is an excellent question. There is no easy answer, but some states are doing it: the money that is saved from closing down prisons and so forth is funneled into the types of programs we’ve talked about—schools, community services, cops on the beat. But say you get a five-year deal to do that. What happens at the end of those five years? That’s a real concern. Those are the things that will keep our prison population down, that will keep us from having so many victims, that will make us safer. But we must invest in them.
If you become DA, how would you reposition San Francisco within this new world?
San Francisco already is taking a leading role, because we have tremendous, progressive law enforcement leaders. Our sheriff, Michael Hennessey—who just announced his retirement after thirty years—runs, for example, a wonderful program called RSVP. It’s a restorative justice program that brings victims into the jails to talk to these men, serious and violent men, about the effects crime has had on them, and makes the men face their own crimes and their own actions, and helps them turn their lives around. Research has shown, unsurprisingly, that men who go through this program recidivate, commit new crimes, at a much lower rate than people who do not.
Now, some people say, “Well, programming, that’s soft on crime. We should cut programming in prisons.” That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. What’s soft on crime is locking someone up and having them sleep all day, be fed three meals a day and watch Jerry Springer all day. There’s nothing tough about that. What’s tough is sitting around in a group and having the mom of a murder victim come in and tell you about the experience she had when her daughter was killed, and the influence it has had on her life, and the pain and suffering it has caused her and her family. And to think about what you have done to cause that pain and suffering in others. Facing that is a whole lot harder than sitting around and watching TV all day.
I would also keep and expand the Back on Track program, which focuses on first-time drug offenders: young adults, 18 to 24, I believe. If they turn their lives around—in other words, if they get a job, finish school, do the program—their record will be wiped clean once they graduate from the program. There are great community partners, like Goodwill Industries, who hire these folks, train them, and it’s been very, very successful. So already, we have all kinds of programs that put us among the most innovative cities in the country. I would look to take that to the next level.
What would you hope that DA Onek’s ultimate legacy would be?
The first thing would be that we’re safer. And the way we would get safer is by building trust with the community. In almost any urban area you go to, there are decades of distrust that have built up between the community and law enforcement. It’s encumbent on law enforcement to reach out to the community to build that trust. By building that trust you start to engage in the types of collaborations we’ve been talking about. And that change will lead to greater safety.