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.