Deborah Gonzalez, the newly elected district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit has announced a series of significant reforms that take effect today, her first day in office.
In a legal memo issued Friday morning to staff of the DA’s office, Gonzalez outlined more than 40 policy changes effective immediately.
In addition to addressing systemic biases and inequalities, taking strong action against the school-to-prison pipeline, and bringing greater transparency and accountability to the DA’s office, the changes are designed to devote greater attention and resources to offenders who are driving a significant proportion of serious and violent crime, while reducing the impact on low-level, non-violent, or first-time offenders, for whom rehabilitation and second chances would be the goal.
All policies announced today are based on tested and proven best practices from other communities. A select few changes are highlighted below; please refer to the memo for the entire list and more legal detail.
New Guidelines for Charges, Prosecution, and Sentencing
“Prosecutors have the power to charge or not to charge; to choose which charges to bring; to offer a plea or not, and to recommend a sentence based on those charges,” said Gonzalez. “These decisions substantially impact people’s lives, their sense of justice, their liberty, their livelihood, and their families, in addition to the community’s fundamental faith in the system.
”Instead of focusing solely on punishment, we need to focus on outcomes,” she said. “Relying on probation and incarceration alone has not made our state safer or more secure. The cost of such punishments also reduces resources available for rehabilitation, substance abuse treatment, counseling, job training, economic development, and policing, all of which are a better investment in the future. When we incorporate diversion and restorative justice as prosecutorial tools, we get better outcomes at a lower cost -- in both economic terms, and human ones.”
To support these goals, Gonzalez has directed the Western Judicial Circuit to make the following immediate changes:
● Shift resources to the front-end of the prosecution process to thoroughly screen and review cases before accepting them, holding communal hearings for individuals in custody to determine if cases should move forward to trial.
● Eliminate practices shown to be biased, expensive, and ineffective at deterring crime and repeat offenses, including no longer seeking the death penalty.
● Decriminalize poverty by eliminating charges and punishments that penalize the poor such as cash bail for non-violent offenses and coercive “trial taxes” that punish the exercise of Constitutional rights, and by making incarceration alternatives available to any eligible defendant regardless of income.
● Consider every case for possible diversion (alternatives to incarceration, such as house arrest or community-based residential programs and shorter, more reasonable periods of probation) as well as possible restorative justice approaches that can limit damage to a family or community, make re-entry more successful, and reduce repeat offenses, while still achieving accountability and justice.
● Reduce negative long-term impacts for victims, defendants, and communities by considering victim impact, economic impact, and the backgrounds and circumstances of defendants including mental health & rehabilitation needs, immigration status, and other factors.
Focus Special Attention and Expertise on Juveniles
“We all want to live in a place where young people stay out of trouble with the law, where a small step off the straight and narrow isn’t life-ending,” said Gonzalez. “To end the school-to-prison pipeline, we must address the unique concerns and consequences for juveniles in the justice system.”
Beginning today, the District Attorney’s office will be guided by the fundamental principle that kids in the juvenile system are minors who are still cognitively developing and should not be transferred to adult court. Going forward, the DA’s office will discourage schools from referring students to the criminal justice system for minor offenses that could be handled within school disciplinary channels and will promote alternative processes such as teen accountability courts, restorative justice, and family counseling.
Improve Transparency and Accountability
“No system’s success can be judged without measurable data, and no system can be trusted that hides information about its process or outcomes,” said Gonzalez. “Honesty and transparency will be the hallmarks of this District Attorney’s office on my watch. We are following a proven path in which justice, equity, and safety work hand-in-hand to build more thriving communities. I want this community to know exactly what we are doing, how the numbers look, and what progress we are making.” To improve transparency and accountability, the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office will begin the development of a data dashboard that compiles and publishes statistics on charges, convictions, and sentencing data by race, gender, ethnicity, disposition, and other variables. The DA’s office will also work toward the establishment of a sentencing review project and greater support for clearing the record of people charged with non-violent crimes when applicants have demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation, and in other circumstances where justice or fairness require it. “These are the first of many reforms that we know will improve both equity and safety in our community,” said Gonzalez. “When you’re repairing more than two decades of neglect and injustice, it can’t all be fixed at the stroke of midnight. However, we have an aggressive plan in place to follow through on every promise I have made to this community to transform the Western Judicial Circuit. That means not only addressing the known issues, but shining a light on every aspect of the criminal justice system in this Circuit to address challenges that a lack of transparency may have hidden from public view.” Additional transformative changes are planned for the coming weeks. “My approach is to learn what’s working in other communities and build alliances with local, state, regional, and national organizations who can help us bring proven strategies to work in our community,” said Gonzalez. “We don’t have to wonder if these policies work. They are working in other communities, right now. All that was missing here was the political will and leadership to innovate, to listen to the experts and the people with lived experience about what was not working, and take decisive steps to fix it.”
Historic Female-Led Leadership Team, with Plans for Additional Staff Hires
Gonzalez also announced that effective today, Rebecca Fogal will step into the role of Chief Assistant District Attorney, forming part of a historic female-led leadership team for the Western Judicial Circuit. Fogal is a 15-year veteran prosecutor in the DA’s office, and previously served as Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney. Gonzalez plans to augment her staff with several new Assistant District Attorney hires that bring significant investigative and prosecutorial experience that can complement the current skill sets in the Circuit. Another planned hire is a grant writer who can help the DA’s office secure additional resources to begin reform work throughout the Circuit, especially within the juvenile justice system. Additionally, Gonzalez is taking steps to increase staff training, implement up-to-date human resources practices, and increase both internal and external communication.
Community Transition Team
In her transition and reform plan, District Attorney Gonzalez will be aided by a diverse and experienced transition team of community leaders, subject matter experts, practitioners, and activists. The volunteer team is led by David Lyle, a native Athenian, lawyer and progressive activist and Travis Williams, a pro-justice advocate and activist whose work has been highlighted by NPR, HBO, MSNBC, and various other national, regional, and local news outlets. The team’s experience in law, social work, victim advocacy, youth development, violence prevention, recovery, restorative justice, and anti-racism will help establish priorities troubleshoot problems, and maintain a high level of transparency and community accountability. “For too long, the voices of this community have fallen on deaf ears in the Western Judicial Circuit. Lives have been destroyed, money has been wasted, and our streets and homes are not safer. The mindset of our new DA is by contrast one of partnership with the community,” said Williams. “Our transition team symbolizes that shift: Deborah has opened the doors to our expertise and input. She is inviting us in, along with the daylight, to identify what must be changed and to recommend best practices for making those changes successfully. It’s a new day in this District, and this community will be working alongside our new District Attorney to achieve a more just system and a safer, more thriving place to live.”
Over the next 30-60 days, Gonzalez plans a review of all open cases and the pretrial diversion program, will be conducting candidate searches in the area of juvenile prosecution, and will be meeting with federal prosecutors and local law enforcement to discuss collaboration on shared goals.
Additional announcements from the DA’s office will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.