"After all, it doesn't matter what prosecutors charge a person with if they don't have the evidence to win a conviction, said California District Attorneys Association Chief Executive Officer Scott Thorpe."
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley's office handles about one-third of California's felony convictions, making this single county critical to the success of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce prison overcrowding by sentencing nonviolent felony offenders to county jails.
Cooley, however, is a Republican who adamantly opposes the Democratic governor's plan and is training his staffers to do everything they can to work around it - including pushing for the most serious charges to ensure that as many offenders as possible are sentenced to state prison. In a recent interview, Cooley said he is trying to mitigate the "public safety nightmare" that realignment will bring - particularly in a county like Los Angeles, where the jails are overcrowded and the sheriff regularly releases offenders early.
"It is going to lead to an increase in crime, which is unfortunate, because Los Angeles is at a 60-year low," he said. "There is no place for them to serve their sentences."
Cooley and his senior staff said the office may take this training to other counties as well.
A greater stake
Brown's realignment plan, which took effect Oct. 1, changes the way California locks up criminals: Those convicted of nonviolent felonies - such as drug possession and auto theft - serve time in county jail instead of state prison, and will be supervised by county probation departments rather than state parole officers. The program is a response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state's prison population by 33,000 inmates by 2013.
The plan is supposed to give local officials, including prosecutors, a greater stake in the outcome of criminal cases in their counties. For prosecutors, that could mean more incentive to pursue probation and other alternatives to incarceration in low-level cases, because the cost of caring for that inmate now falls to the county, rather that state.
But even in liberal cities such as San Francisco, some defense attorneys say they are not seeing changes in the way prosecutors handle low-level cases. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón supports realignment but argues that some offenders are not good candidates for staying in local jails or serving probation because of past crimes.
Though most of the attention surrounding realignment has focused on how sheriffs' departments, which run jails, and probation agencies, which will be supervising far more offenders, will handle that workload, experts say the way prosecutors react to the change in law could have a huge impact on the program's ability to reduce the state prison population and curb the state's 67 percent recidivism rate.
UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg noted that offenders convicted in Southern California counties make up the majority of the state prison population, and leaders there tend to be the most skeptical of the realignment plan. If prosecutors in those counties do not change the way they approach and charge cases, he said, the state prison population will continue to rise.
"The heart of the matter is, 'Is there any commitment to use realignment as a way to advance rehabilitation?' Clearly some places are doing that - Santa Clara and Alameda, and San Francisco will make a good effort," he said. "But the larger question is, once you get to the jurisdictions that are dubious about realignment, that have not bought into rehabilitation as the main goal of the justice system, are we just going to see people gaming the system?"
Cooley said his office is teaching its lawyers to "scour" criminal records to make sure they note any prior offenses when they file new charges, and to make sure that new charges include offenses categorized as serious, violent or sexual when possible.
"We are trying to create awareness among law enforcement," he said. "They don't all realize how devastating and disastrous this will be."