Back in 2017, I left a speaking engagement at a local library and walked to my car, only to find shattered glass strewn on the ground and throughout the backseat. My backpack and suitcase full of belongings for an upcoming trip had vanished in the darkness.
Over the next several days, I slowly and methodically purchased items to replace my stolen things. All told, about $1,000 and countless hours spent fixing my car and replacing everything.
Nowadays living in San Jose, it’s hard not to notice the signs in strip mall parking lots reminding us to lock our vehicles and remove valuables. And while statistics show San Jose experienced a second straight year of decreases in property crime in 2021, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that every time we leave a backpack, laptop or something meaningful in the car that they could be taken.
And as a father of two boys and a son to an aging mother, it’s a palpable concern that on any given day, our family home will be burglarized and our sense of security shaken. The thought can be paralyzing.
I often think about the countless prospective jurors I have listened to in courtrooms over my 14 years as a public defender, especially those who have suffered residential burglaries. I can hear the tremors in their voices. I can see the wells of tears behind their eyes. And I feel, even to this day, the anguish, pain and trauma they continue to endure and the violation of their privacy, sanctity and peace.
And now, our community members are feeling tremendous insecurity and fear witnessing a rash of recent retail theft at prominent businesses across the Bay Area.
These experiences and feelings exist all while California continues to incarcerate more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth.
Those of us who call Santa Clara County home continue to feel unsafe and fearful under the leadership of an incumbent district attorney who relies on prisons and jails as the primary response to crime.
The current DA’s office continues to define justice by how long it incarcerates people and utilizes other practices like cash bail, three strike enhancements and mandatory minimum sentences that have not made us safer.
As a public defender in this community, I have come to learn that so many people who commit the harms of property crimes are living on the margins in our communities. They have been victims of harms themselves and suffer through family separation, homelessness, unemployment, drug and alcohol dependence, debt and mental illness.
Many of these people have come through our courthouses and jails. They have not been rehabilitated and made more whole, but instead have been further traumatized and destabilized by our criminal legal systems and then released back into our communities.
I’m running for DA because we can’t keep ignoring the root causes of harm and continue turning to the same failed policies and imbalanced budgets that prioritize policing and punishment over care and services.
The continued emphasis on incarceration and criminalization where we destabilize communities, separate families, cut off access to housing, shortchange schools, fail to heal people and perpetuate systemic racism will not stop property crime and leave us feeling safer in our homes and streets.
Our path to public safety isn’t through jails, prisons and harsher sentences.
This moment demands real investment in the full dignity and well-being of all our people. We must ensure all our fellow human beings have access to a good education, competitively paying jobs, safe and clean housing, comprehensive health care and community ties and support.
By doing so, we prevent harms like burglaries and retail thefts from happening in the first place.
And when property crimes do occur, we must determine in each case the evidence-based intervention that will restore crime victims and also address root causes underlying an incident, including mental illness, substance abuse and unhealed trauma. We must hold people accountable—while also promoting healing and rehabilitation.
These system responses, more creative and effective than incarceration-centric measures, will stop the cycle that manifests in these harms and will actually make our communities safer and give us the peace of mind we all desire and deserve.
Sajid A. Khan is a public defender in San Jose and 2022 candidate for Santa Clara County district attorney.