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November 11, 2011

Santa Clara in the midst of (dangerous?) crime experiment in laboratory of California

As a deep believer in the benefits of laboratories of democracy, I have long hoped that there would be more local and state criminal justice innovations in this modern era of less crime and more punishment. Consequently, I am pleased and intrigued by this local story out of California, headlined "On crime policy, Santa Clara County takes a cutting-edge -- some say risky -- approach." Here are excerpts:

Long overshadowed by freethinking San Francisco, Berkeley and now protest-roiled Oakland, Santa Clara County has been eclipsing its lefty neighbors lately -- with criminal justice policies that critics blast as risky but supporters call cutting-edge.

From its controversial stand against a federal policy on detaining jailed illegal immigrants to its open-arms, welcome-home stance toward newly freed state prisoners, Santa Clara County has struck the kind of permissive chord that puts Fox News pundits in a lather. "The county is shaping up to be one of the most progressive in the state on reforming the criminal justice system," said Allen Hopper, police practices director of the ACLU of Northern California.

To be sure, prosecutors and judges in Santa Clara County are still filing stiffer charges and putting people behind bars longer than in San Francisco.  But on the immigration front, the Board of Supervisors late last month approved a policy that made Santa Clara County only the second jurisdiction in the nation to defy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.  Chicago's Cook County was the first.

Now, the Santa Clara County sheriff releases illegal immigrants with a history of committing serious or violent crimes onto the streets unless ICE pays to detain them -- and so far the feds are refusing to cough up the money.  Even San Francisco County has retreated from its previous extremely lenient illegal-immigration policy after undocumented juveniles it protected went on to commit well-publicized murders.

In addition, Santa Clara County's willingness to experiment with rehabilitating rather than simply locking up nonviolent felons under the state's massive new "realignment" of the criminal justice system is generating such interest that Stanford and Santa Clara universities are holding law school seminars this year devoted to studying it.  The county, for example, is the only one in the state reaching out to prison inmates before they return home under the new supervision of county probation officers.  Local officials are showering the prisoners with offers of job training, places to live and even free medication.

"I'm proud of the county," said Supervisor Dave Cortese. "I feel we are moving as much as we can toward a system of restorative justice rather than punitive" justice.

But some think the county is going too far -- particularly with its new immigration policy, which passed on a 3-1 vote....  After the vote, District Attorney Jeff Rosen and Sheriff Laurie Smith warned that freeing illegal immigrants whose previous records include violent crimes, instead of holding them 24 hours for ICE, poses a risk that they may go on to victimize others.   "I think they're just playing with dynamite," said Don Gage, a former longtime Republican county supervisor who represented South County.  "I wouldn't have voted for it either."

Advocates, on the other hand, say any alliance with ICE in the face of anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia, Utah, Indiana and Alabama -- as well as the recent presence of two ICE agents on a San Jose police gang unit -- could create an even bigger risk by undermining immigrant communities' trust in the police, making people afraid to report crimes as witnesses or even as victims.  In a recent local case, two San Jose brothers who are illegal immigrants badly beat a man who molested an 8-year-old girl in their household rather than call the police, partly out of fear of being deported....

On realignment, the county was able to draw on its previous positive experience with juvenile-justice reform programs, which have reduced the number of kids in juvenile hall and shifted the emphasis at youth ranches from punishment to rehabilitation.  So when the state set out to trim its prison population and costs by unloading responsibility this fall for incarcerating and rehabilitating thousands of lower-level felons on local governments, Santa Clara County was ready.

November 11, 2011 at 10:37 AM | Permalink


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