Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen will no longer pursue the death penalty, needlessly compound charges and prosecute minor crimes as part of a slew of reforms he unveiled Wednesday.
Instead, Rosen said, his office will pursue sentencing alternatives to incarceration, refrain from requesting fines and fees from low-income defendants, work to end cash bail in the state and automatically expunge records of those who complete probation.
Rosen’s office handles upwards of 30,000 cases each year. The sweeping reforms are a progressive shift for the traditionally tough-on-crime DA, and illustrate a growing trend nationally toward criminal justice reform.
The county’s top prosecutor said the changes are in response to public pressure to address race and equity, increase police accountability and provide more community rehabilitation – demands that have ramped up in the months following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Rosen said he hopes the reforms strengthen public trust in law enforcement, which he called “essential for the health and well being of our democracy.”
“We must change and change is hard,” Rosen said at a news conference Wednesday. “However, not changing in the face of a community that is truly wondering if the criminal justice system is fundamentally fair is not an option. To make the system more fair and more equitable, we need to have change as a constant state.”
Rosen’s reversal of his view of capital punishment is the stunning cornerstone of the reforms. Last year, Rosen told the Mercury News that he disagreed with those who think the death penalty is wrong regardless of crimes committed, saying “there are a very small number of individuals that have committed such horrendous crimes that the appropriate response from a civilized society is to execute them.”
“Over the years, I’ve become disillusioned with it,” Rosen said Wednesday. “It takes a massive amount of resources from our office and the public defender’s office, the cases drag on for years and years, and there’s no finality.”
Rosen said sentences will not be changed for the nearly 20 people currently sitting on death row in Santa Clara County, however, since Gov. Gavin Newsom implemented a moratorium on executions early in his time in office.
Santa Clara University law professor Ellen Kreitzberg, who has specialized in the death penalty for decades, said she thinks the rejection of the death penalty is an important moment in California’s history.
“I think the district attorney is taking a bold, clear stance that the death penalty is not morally defensible,” Kreitzberg told San José Spotlight. “Hopefully he will be able to take some leadership on this and bring some other thoughtful district attorneys to that same position.”
Santa Clara County courtrooms don’t tend to use capital punishment frequently, she added, but three such cases have gone to trial in recent years, and four within Rosen’s tenure. Most recently, a jury found a defendant not guilty last month in a death penalty case involving the death and rape of a 2-year-old child, after the defendant spent four years in jail awaiting a decision.
Since there’s no evidence showing the death penalty reduces crime, Kreitzberg said this decision will have a greater impact on local communities and residents.
“The money that does not have to be allocated for the death penalty can now be used to fight crime or effectively go to the real issues that stop crime” such as early childhood intervention, education or mental health services, she said. “We could go through a litany of possible community services that we know will have a better impact on on the possibility of criminal behavior.”
Other changes announced by Rosen include no longer filing misdemeanor charges for driving on a suspended license or failure to pay fees, instead moving those to traffic infractions. Rosen said these 4,000 annual misdemeanors disproportionately impact low-income people of color.
Rosen will now require prosecutors to review body-worn camera footage in cases of resisting arrest before making any decisions, and will not file charges without other crimes. He said 18% of the standalone resisting arrest cases the DA’s office has filed have been against African Americans, who comprise only 3% of the county’s demographics.
San Jose Police Officers Association President Paul Kelly chastised Rosen for this change hours before it was first announced.
“Jeff Rosen has just issued an open invitation to every drunk driver, criminal and violent gang member to resist arrest, impede investigations and openly challenge every police officer in our county,” Kelly said in a statement. “While the rest of the country is working to de-escalate dangerous interactions between police and the community, Jeff Rosen is purposely escalating confrontations that will only lead to increased uses of force and injuries or worse to police officers.”
Rosen said the reforms aren’t meant to harm officers, but to provide a way to avoid charges that are at the discretion of officers, especially in attempts to cover up misconduct. Charges will be considered anytime force is used when resisting arrest, he added, which is a felony.
Rosen said the change on resisting arrest charges will “de-escalate tensions between the police and the community and make things safer for everyone, including police officers.”
Alongside scaling back capital punishment, the District Attorney’s policy and procedure manual will be changed from what crimes can be proven in a case, to instead read what crimes “should” be proven. Defense attorneys will also now be allowed to provide social histories of defendants before trials to provide more background on life circumstances and equitable decisions.
In addition to ride-alongs with police, prosecutors will be required to spend time with community organizations, visit jails and prisons, study conditions, learn about rehabilitation programs and speak with inmates, to more clearly understand the implications of what’s at stake for their trials.
“Seeing the world through the lens of law enforcement is important, but seeing the world through the lens of our victims, our defendants, and all facets of our incredibly diverse community is vital for us to serve all the people with respect, dignity, and understanding,”
Some of the changes are effective immediately – such as seeking the death penalty nor filing standalone charges for resisting arrest – while some will take longer to implement, such as reconfiguring software to coordinate expunging records.