Candidates, It has been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that democracy dies in darkness. In this era of digital media, it is not difficult to publicize outcomes - for example, just one county to the south, the District Attorney maintains a Facebook page that publishes all jury trial outcomes - good, bad, and ugly. Would you agree that the current administration has not maintained an adequate level of transparency regarding its own outcomes in order to allow the electorate to meaningfully evaluate its job performance? If so, what concrete steps will you take to make sure the public knows how your office is doing? Roger
Thank you for your question, Roger.
On the very first day of my administration, I will move towards making the status of all cases referred to the District Attorney’s office publicly available on the internet. Simply the facts, no editorializing. That is not a difficult task, and it’s a basic duty that the government owes the public.
You are correct - the public must have access to information to make informed decisions regarding the District Attorney’s job performance. This is about much more than the current administration’s practice of issuing a press release only when they prevail in a trial. It’s about communicating clearly, providing information whenever possible, to build and maintain the public’s trust in our criminal justice system. After all, trust is the very foundation of our criminal justice system.
The District Attorney’s Office should use a variety of tools to communicate to the people of Humboldt County. This includes using the official County website, using Facebook and other social media platforms, and responding to inquiries in a timely fashion when possible. Social media outlets have been considered “the new town hall” for more than decade – we need to catch up. By the District Attorney providing facts and reasoning we will improve the level of public discourse. This has another benefit: it allows people to publicly express their opinion, any opinion, on the District Attorney’s decision-making.
I will also uphold an appropriate exchange with the media to promote public accountability. Maintaining a professional and respectful relationship with journalists allows for information to be questioned and vetted as a necessary check on government authority.
Additionally, I will encourage community organizations that focus and advise on crime prevention and criminal justice issues. I will have liaisons, including myself, to address those organizations’ members and to listen, learn, and educate on criminal justice issues. That is another simple step towards transparency and establishing public trust.
Transparency from the District Attorney’s office isn’t an all-or-nothing issue. The District Attorney should be providing basic information, including information in the public record, that serves public interests. The public is entitled to know the status of pending cases, when charges are not filed, when charges are dropped, when a plea agreement is reached, or, as you noted, if the prosecution does not prevail at trial.
The only information our community receives on a regular basis is at the time of an arrest through police press releases or through the jail logs, which are reposted on this website’s very popular “Booked” section. Under the law everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, many of these people are presumed guilty because only arrest information is readily available. It’s only fair for the District Attorney to let you know what happens after the initial arrest. While it’s true that the public can access certain information through public records requests and that courtrooms are open to the public, the reality is that the average person doesn’t have the time to expend that effort during the middle of a weekday, and that our media has limited resources to thoroughly cover cases.
However, providing the public with basic information regarding the status and resolution of cases is not the same thing as disclosing sensitive information. The District Attorney can’t reveal any information that compromises a case or infringes on constitutional rights. A prosecutor should never publicly express an opinion on a defendant’s guilt or on the weight of the evidence until trial. Those are well-established ethical rules that are provided in the Code of Ethics.
On the other hand, the ethical rules provide that the prosecution can release information that aids a law enforcement process, promotes public safety, dispels widespread concern or unrest, or promotes confidence in the criminal justice system.
That latter purpose, promoting confidence in the criminal justice system, is critical. The District Attorney’s office has a tremendous amount of authority, including routinely making decisions that profoundly affect the lives of the people involved in criminal cases. These include victims, witnesses, defendants, their families, and the broader community. The District Attorney decides which people will be prosecuted, where they stand to have their liberty and freedom taken from them, and what resources should be provided to victims. These decisions are not easy, and the reasoning must be publicly accessible and clear.
With that tremendous authority comes an equal degree of responsibility. The public is entitled to know that the person they elected is responsibly using the authority the people have granted them. The District Attorney’s authority and resources must be used for clear strategies for prioritizing public safety, and never for furthering political interests or campaigns.
I. Transparency in relation to public information on pending criminal cases and case dispositions
Leadership in the area of information technology is great, but circumspection is even better. I remember having to make the decision on which network video recording system to purchase and install at the Bear River Casino when I was the Executive Director of the Gaming Agency there. The winning bid would have to account for hundreds of cameras, terabytes of video data at high resolution, and RAID level 6 redundancy, which was an expensive proposition back then. My decision was to give Honeywell the contract, because it was a military contractor who made control units for things like BlackHawk helicopters, and so its tolerance for failure is negligible. My point is that, as a manager, when it comes to spending other people’s money on information technology solutions to a problem, you need to be circumspect; that is, you need to be risk-averse, with premature obsolescence being possibly the largest risk to avoid. Installing new databases for public information at the District Attorney’s office, as has been suggested by Mr. Kamada, risks premature obsolescence and takes human resources away from the primary mission of prosecuting criminals. So leadership in I.T. is great, but it needs to be in the right direction, especially when implementing large-scale, securely written, and publicly accessible databases.
In terms of providing transparency in the disposition of resolved cases and the status of open cases, the Clerk’s Office of the Superior Court maintains the official database of court records, including the status of every criminal case handled by the District Attorney’s office. The public can call them and they are pretty helpful in my experience with giving case status information for any non-confidential case. There are also two self-service public access computers on the second floor of the courthouse that are relatively easy to use. This is why I think it is a waste of time for the District Attorney’s office to be implementing new databases, in the name of transparency, when no more information would be provided than already exists in the official court records. Also, if it’s cumulative statistics of case dispositions that are at issue, then there are annual statistics on arrests and prosecutions for Humboldt County available for free at the Attorney General’s office website.
The only solution that makes sense regarding the public’s access to criminal case information locally is for the Superior Court of Humboldt County to authorize its information technology department to move forward with creating a modern public case information portal on the Superior Court’s website, as most other counties in California have already done. Examples of this idea in action can be found at many of the websites of the Superior Courts of other counties. Here are some links from similarly-sized counties that already have this capability, which include Mendocino, Del Norte, Sutter, Napa, Nevada counties:
The larger counties have even better web access to case information, for example:
So just as I don’t believe that the District Attorney’s office should be duplicating what the Department of Social Services does (i.e. wasting court time and attorney capacity on monitoring various defendants’ drug rehabilitation progress) neither do I believe that the District Attorney’s office should be duplicating what the Superior Court should be doing. Now is a good time, however, for the District Attorney’s office to encourage, through meetings and memoranda, the Humboldt County Superior Court to come on into the 21st century by providing public web-based access to case information.
This is something that has irked me since I figured out years ago that there are 3 separate data entry functions occurring just to post the court calendar each day:
the Court’s database contains the official calendar information and is what the courtroom clerks and the clerk’s office collectively enter;
the court’s hallway calendars per courtroom, which, I have deduced from past discrepancies, are not rendered directly from the clerk’s official database, but are prepared by a separate data entry clerk each day; and
the court website’s online services calendar, which has been relatively consistent but often shows yesterday’s calendar and which has also contained discrepancies between itself and the information in the official clerk’s calendar (which means that there is a third data entry effort being staffed by the court for the same information).
In addition to the 3 asynchronous daily court calendar functions currently being staffed, it is also always disheartening to hear from jail staff, when the court has ordered the release of a defendant, that the minutes of the court won’t make it down to the jail until after 5pm…..as opposed to being available to the jail as soon as the courtroom clerk hits the ENTER button. Integration or synchronization of the two databases (court and jail), either choice would be fine, but having two data entry clerks inputting the same information is less than optimal. Again….21st century people.
II. Transparency in relation to press releases
I would like to take a step back and pose the question, should the District Attorney’s office be issuing press releases at all? My answer is that responses to public inquiries or press inquiries, whether by interviews, press releases, press conferences, or a simple conversation with a member of the public, should be prompt and as informative as the law and common decency allow, but that proactive, unsolicited press releases by the District Attorney’s office should not occur at all, because that is not the office’s function, and the government shouldn’t decide which cases are newsworthy. vFrom a management perspective, staffing unsolicited press releases, whether self-serving or balanced, consumes staff time that could better be used a) ensuring the completeness of discovery to opposing counsel which is the number one cause of delays in court, b) investigating allegations to facilitate case resolutions, or c) preparing for trials that can’t be avoided. Right now, all of these activities need more staff time dedicated to them, and at any given time, I can’t imagine assigning even one staff position to being a spin doctor instead of assigning that person to one of those activities.
For better or worse, I cognitively process all government constructs, both actual or proposed, through a fiscally conservative, small government philosophy. So, yes it is within the function of the District Attorney’s office to respond to public inquiry, but no it is not its function to be a news agency. It is the role of independent journalists and the free press to decide what is newsworthy, by definition. I do agree with Mr. Kamada that the District Attorney’s office certainly shouldn’t be issuing self-serving press releases only when it wins jury trials, but if we go the way of reporting on every jury trial won or lost, and every plea bargain, including the status of every case, as has been suggested by Mr. Kamada, then we are talking about a duplicate database with second-hand interpretations of the official record. That is neither a fiscally conservative nor a small government approach to transparency.
Transparency in relation to measuring the performance of the District Attorney
The concept of the conviction rate as a measurement of performance for the District Attorney has never been heuristically useful. Conviction rates are more of an ego thing, at best, and, at worst, can be an unreasonable barrier to the resolution of cases, especially if factoring in:
1) cases in which prosecutors, because they are green or because they are mean, imprudently use an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to charging defendants (like mine);
2) cases involving political bullying of recalcitrant nonconformists (also like mine); or
3) cases involving police requests for factually reversed charges against a defendant to cover up police misconduct (which commonly occurs when the police use excessive force.)
Particularly because the baseline for a conviction rate statistic is determined by the reasonableness of police work, the District Attorney’s overall conviction rate is not a good measure of performance, and it is certainly not a good measure of whether or not we are becoming a safer community. Normatively, the measurement of performance of the District Attorney should be the same as the measurement for public safety, which should be (and I have said this many times during this campaign):
how many people have been injured this year as a result of a criminal act (and to what extent have they been injured), and
what is the cumulative replacement value of property that has been damaged as a result of criminal action or had been stolen without recovery?
Assuming that clearance rates are stable (more on this below), these should be the only heuristics that matter and the transparency of these figures should be auditable by the public.
[The caveat of clearance rates: Clearance rates are the proportion of crimes solved relative to the crimes known to have occurred. Clearance rates are therefore calculated by dividing the number of crimes reported and cleared by arrest into the total number of crimes reported. This measures police responsiveness to crime reports. It is important therefore to monitor the stability of clearance rates in relation to the quantitative injury and property loss figures in order to measure public safety and to fairly measure the performance of a District Attorney.
When truly historic changes to criminal justice institutions are taking place, clearance rates see a greater variance. This is generally due to political resistance to policy reform within the agency charged with enforcement of the new policy using a tactic of “non-enforcement” to trigger public resentment and repeal or recall of the reform or the reformist. The fall of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 is a classic example, as Nelson Mandela’s election as President was followed by a period of non-enforcement by the South African police agencies in order to manufacture chaos in an attempt to discredit Mandela.
We were fortunate to recently witness another example of this rare political phenomenon, when Humboldt County personnel traveled to the Tenderloin district of SF to take part in an on-duty “non-enforcement” rally against reformist SF DA Chesa Boudin shortly before his upcoming recall election on June 7, 2022. It’s the police’s version of Timothy Leary’s “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out”… while on-duty, and according to election polls, the strategy seems to have effectively deceived the public by a 10-point margin.
This is how the police check the public, instead of the public checking the police. So, in the unlikely event that this election results in my reluctant employment by the County, then check those clearance rates, because you will have lived to witness historic changes of priorities, followed by a storm of backlash, but ending in Humboldt County being regarded with esteem in the world history books, as an early adopter of safer, more sensible criminal justice priorities, whereby only the humans that act like animals will be locked up in cages.
… but, according to the campaign fund disclosures and all the signs around town, which ostensibly control elections, it’s much more likely that we will continue to live in the dark ages.