Criminal justice update: public officials behaving badly and prison realignment

Feb 27, 2012

Today, in San Francisco’s Superior Court, a judge heard motions in the case of San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. Mirkarimi is accused of domestic violence, in the wake of a fight with his wife on New Year's Eve that prosecutors say got physical.

Mirkarimi’s not the only one having trouble in his new job. A number of local criminal justice officials are on rocky ground in the Bay Area. Holly Kernan sat down with KALW’s criminal justice reporter, Rina Palta, to discuss these and other happenings in the public safety world.

HOLLY KERNAN: Let’s start with the Mirakarimi trial. San Francisco’s new sheriff is accused of domestic violence. And now there are photos circulating of the sheriff’s wife, Eliana Lopez, with a bruise on her arm and prosecutors say she got that from her husband during a fight on New Year's Eve. What happened today in court?

RINA PALTA: Today in court the judge on the case decided that they will admit a video of Eliana Lopez speaking with her neighbor about her relationship with Ross Mirkarimi, the sherrif, and what happened the night of New Year's Eve, when this fight allegedly took place.

KERNAN: And this video was taken by a neighbor?

PALTA: Exactly. And Mirkarimi's lawyers had argued that it had no place in court. This was a conversation that happened in the context of a custody battle...

KERNAN: Potential custody battle.

PALTA: Yes, potential custody battle, and that it had no place. Obviously, the judge disagreed.

KERNAN: Mirkarimi’s not the only one in hot water. Alameda County’s new probation chief, David Muhammad, has been suspended from his job while he fights sexual assault allegations. What’s happening there?

PALTA: David Muhammad has been accused of sexual assault by a deputy. This is a man who came to town pretty recently from New York. He had been in Oakland before, went to New York, became kind of a super star in the progressive law enforcement world, was brought back with the support of tons of community organizations in Oakland to be this kind of white knight to turn the juvenile justice system around to make it more rehabilitative and better. So this is kind of a devastating blow for that community, who thought this was going to be the savior. Now he's facing sexual assault charges, which is extremely serious - and certainly serious to his career.

KERNAN: What do these allegations mean for Bay Area criminal justice and particularly reform?

PALTA: We've kind of been the epicenter of the reform community in California and also in the nation. This is where there are a lot of think tanks, there are a lot of academics focusing on criminal justice reform, and we've been slowly building a body of elected officials and law enforcement officials who believe in that reform as well. And so, with the combination of Ross Mirkarimi, who took over for reform Sheriff Mike Hennessey, as the successor in his legacy. And David Muhammed, who was kind of this new breath of fresh air for the probation department, it's looking a little bleak, but we still do have a lot of elected officials in place, like Chief Wendy Still, in San Francisco probation, who really embraced this reform message.

KERNAN: Let's talk about another big reform at the state level, which is called realignment. California state prisons are under court order to reduce the prison population because of overcrowding and what they're doing is sending inmates back to the county level. How is that going?

PALTA: It's going pretty well for the state so far. They've been exceeding their goals in reducing the prison population. The Legislative Analyst's Office produced a study last week that showed that overall, on their two-year plan they're probably not going to hit their 33,000 reduction target by the date they specified. So the LAO is trying to get the state to do a few things: to ask for more time from the court to meet their goals and to start talking about how the infrastructure of the state prison system will be reduced once this population is gone. They're saying maybe it's time to talk about closing some prisons.

KERNAN: What else did the Legislative Analyst's Office have to say about realignment?

PALTA: They're also saying that AB900, which is this bill that was passed a few years ago to give money to build more correctional facilities should be reexamined and maybe those billions of dollars that could be put towards that initiative should be reexamined.

KERNAN: So what realignment does is puts the burden of figuring out what to do with these new inmates who are going from prisons to county-level at the county level. How are counties dealing with this new influx of inmates?

PALTA: California has 58 counties. They are all very different places. They all take a really different approach to criminal justice. Some of them are more punitive. Some of them are more focused on rehabilitation. So you're seeing that play out in how they deal with these inmates, too. San Francisco is putting more into rehabilitation. Some places like San Mateo and Kern County are looking to build more jails to house these people so they can keep their sentences a little longer. You have people like L.A. County, which is taking a very different tactic, when it comes to prison realignment. I'm going to  have L.A. District Attorney candidate Alan Jackson describe the situation in Los Angeles County. He spoke with KALW's Nicole Jones:

JACKSON: We have, basically right now in Los Angeles County, we have our jail filled to just about capacity right now. In other words, people are getting out of jail because there’s a lack of beds on a fraction of the actual time that they should be, that the judge is sentencing them to in county jail. Now what’s going to happen when 8,000 new inmates per year are sentenced to ultimately state prison to do local custody time for that state prison sentence?

KERNAN: What is L.A. doing to deal with this crisis?

RINA: The County has contracted with a prison building company to do a $5.7 million “evaluation” of the county’s needs. People are wondering down there if that means that the county is going to build more jails. Local politicians, like Senator Strickland, are pushing something that’s sure to be very controversial. Jackson supports this controversial plan:

JACKSON: I think one of the tools that each of the counties should have is the same tool that the state's had for decades, and that is the ability to contract with signatory states with an interstate compact, that allows for the transfer of California inmates to out-of-state beds for certain payments.

KERNAN: So shipping inmates to out-of-state, private prisons?

PALTA: Yeah that would be the option. The bill was introduced by Senator Strickland. That would give counties the option to send inmates out of state. And that, people are saying, really contradicts the stated mission of realignment - to be more about community corrections, to be more about keeping people close to their families at home, and so there's sure to be a lot of opposition to this.