Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer announced a set of “guiding principles” Wednesday to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
“We as a society have engaged in systemic mass incarceration,” Spitzer said. “As a prosecutor, I will stop it. We as a society have prosecuted people of color differently. As a prosecutor, I will stop it.”
“We cannot fix a systematic problem without a systematic approach. That approach must be thoughtful, thorough, and include different perspectives, different experiences, and different ideas. Justice is not evidenced by the longest sentence; justice is what is best for the individual, the victim, and society as a whole.”
Spitzer said some of the initiatives he wants to establish include:
— A conviction integrity unit;
— Recidivism reduction units “that address an individual’s chances for success”;
— Support efforts to have mentally ill defendants be diverted to mental health care to address “underlying issues”;
— Support of a “dual 911 dispatch” with dispatchers trained to handle emergency calls for psychiatric assistance;
— Endorsing policies preventing law enforcement agencies from investigating officer-involved shootings involving their own officers; and
— Bans on the use of carotid holds.
The announcement drew mixed responses from defense attorneys and a potential challenger to Spitzer when he is up for re-election next year.
Humberto Guizar, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in excessive force cases, said “it sounds good, and if they’re going to do that stuff then fine,” but he urged Spitzer to support an independent commission to oversee officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.
Guizar said investigators from the District Attorney’s Office who go to the scene of officer-involved shootings “don’t evaluate a case the way they should. They look for things to justify the shootings … instead of really investigating. They rubber stamp use of force every time.”
Guizar noted that aside from charging some of the officers involved in the 2011 death of transient Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, similar cases are routinely ruled as justified shootings.
“This goes on and on and on,” Guizar told City News Service, noting that many of the investigators are retired police officers who are “jaded and throw softball pitches to the involved officers.”
Guizar also accused the investigators of “dehumanizing” the suspects killed in police- or deputy-involved shootings by questioning families about drug usage or gang affiliations even before informing them of the death of their loved one.
Attorney Christian Contreras, who also works on excessive force cases, said Spitzer’s announcement “comes as a surprise.”
“While I commend Mr. Spitzer if he were genuine, Mr. Spitzer has continually taken a pro-police, mass incarceration position,” Contreras said.
If Spitzer is “serious about reform, he would immediately issue directives similarly like (Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon).”
Gascon has pushed for a number of reforms that have drawn criticism such as not seeking gang-related sentencing enhancements in some cases.
Gascon has also been a proponent of reforming the bail system, which he says unfairly leaves minorities who cannot afford to get out of jail languishing behind bars while wealthier defendants can get out and more effectively mount a defense.
“Mr. Spitzer appears to see the writing on the wall now that Mr. Gascon was elected…” Contreras said. “Mr. Spitzer is up for re-election next year in 2022. This move appears to be calculated to position him for re-election despite the conservativeness of Orange County.”
Contreras also challenged Spitzer to drop charges against Tia Turner, who is charged with attempted murder in connection with a protest in Yorba Linda in September.
Contreras said Turner’s “representatives” claim she was “protecting herself against a mob of pro-Trump protesters.”
Turner was accused of driving a car over a participant in the protest. Black Lives Matter protesters have held demonstrations before her court hearings to support her.
Contreras accused Spitzer’s office of pushing off bail review hearings for Turner, who is being held on $1 million bail.
“I have also been contacted by other peaceful protesters for Black Lives Matter who are afraid for their safety based upon Mr. Spitzer’s publication of names and purported criminal charges throughout his social media accounts,” Contreras said.
Peter Hardin, a former Orange County and federal prosecutor who is mulling a run against Spitzer next year, said the guidelines appear to be “empty words.”
Hardin said he supports the “broad notion of ending mass incarceration, but I can’t get behind the empty political rhetoric with which he addresses this.”
Hardin said he also supports establishing an independent commission to oversee officer-involved shootings. He said he believes it should include representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, a defense attorney and a retired judge.
Hardin said he also found it “entirely hypocritical” of Spitzer to espouse reform when he has been critical of Gascon.
In December, Spitzer slammed Gascon’s policies in an interview with the Fox News Channel.
“I’m here to warn my constituents there is a grand experiment that has dangerous implications one county to the north,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer criticized the zero-bail proposal, though he acknowledged there needs to be some reform of the bail process, but said it must include some sort of a “risk assessment” of the defendant.
“Gascon eliminates the risk assessment,” Spitzer said. “So that concerns me deeply.”
Spitzer also criticized what he characterized as Gascon’s abandonment of “broken windows crime.”
If those misdemeanor laws aren’t enforced “property values in Los Angeles are going to plummet,” Spitzer said.
“The streets are going to be out of control,” Spitzer said. “No one is going to be safe. No one is talking about that side of the equation. That concerns me greatly, as well.”
Defense attorney Jacqueline Goodman, a past president of the California Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association, said in light of Spitzer’s interview with Fox News Channel in December, “many defense practitioners in Orange County may rightly view Spitzer’s statement with skepticism. But it should be seen as a welcome step in the right direction to anyone concerned with equal justice and thriving communities. Because although it favors platitudes over substance, and whether it be borne of an astute political concern or an authentic awakening, it is a signal that the struggle for equal justice may finally be gaining a foothold, even in Orange County.”
Goodman added that “conspicuously missing” from Spitzer’s guidelines “are the means to end the systems of injustice, such as a call to end qualified immunity, or a recognition of disparate surveillance of communities of color, leading to what are labeled as `high crime neighborhoods,’ which lead to increased arrests of people of color, and an endless cycle of injustice.”
American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Somil Trivedi, who is spearheading a lawsuit involving the confidential informant program, faulted Spitzer for not providing more specifics.
“That’s sort of keeping with his M.O.,” Trivedi said. “He’s been using the language of reform since his first campaign and has never really followed through, so I don’t think he’s earned the benefit of a doubt that he will make these policies a reality.”
Trivedi argued that when Spitzer had a chance to reduce the jails population during the pandemic he resisted it.
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