A New Approach to Prosecution

Local prosecutors across the country wield enormous power to make decisions that affect the flow of people in and out of often-overcrowded jails. With that power in mind, the district attorney in one California county wants to upend the way we think about his job responsibilities.

Jeff Rosen’s job is to reduce crime and protect public safety. Yet he thinks that putting people in jail and prisons should be a last resort.

The second-term District Attorney of Santa Clara County, California, Rosen calls himself a reform-minded DA and is no stranger to controversy. After a razor-thin election that unseated the incumbent in 2010, the reforms Rosen has championed—including reducing penalties for certain crimes—have displeased some colleagues in law enforcement, while others have called him courageous.

The following videos of DA Rosen talking about innovations in Santa Clara County illustrates some ways that prosecutors can aim to reduce the use of jail incarceration even as they protect public safety.


1. When the Time Doesn’t Match the Crime

California recently passed Proposition 47, reducing many nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, consequentially releasing thousands of inmates. Many California DAs opposed the law, arguing that it would make communities less safe, while Rosen and a handful of others supported it, asserting that many low-level offenders are incarcerated for too long.

“We have to draw a distinction between people that we are angry at and people that we are afraid of.”


2. Stopping Victims from Becoming Criminals

Santa Clara County’s Victim Services Unit takes a long-term approach to crime prevention, by working to prevent families and individuals affected by crime from falling into a dangerous cycle.

“If perhaps we had done a better job when that person was the victim of a crime and we provided them services and tried to help them recover from their trauma and get back on their feet, that they may not then have gone on to commit a crime.”


3. Driving While Undocumented

An estimated 10 percent of Santa Clara County’s population is made up of undocumented immigrants, and a new policy aims to reduce deportations that result from minor infractions.

“It’s not fair for someone to be deported for driving on a suspended license or for doing a shoplifting.”


4. Justice Goes Both Ways

In September 2015, the DA’s office charged three correctional officers with the murder of a mentally ill inmate at Santa Clara County Main Jail—a surprising move given that correctional officers are rarely prosecuted.

“We’re not quite living up to the ideal that we have as Americans about human dignity and about how to treat our fellow human beings.”


5. Transparency Tactics

Eliminating the use of secretive grand juries in cases when police officers are involved with civilian fatalities may be a way to increase public trust.

“People can, of course, disagree with my decision. But I think in a democracy everyone’s entitled to the information upon which I made that decision.”


6. Never Too Late To Correct a Mistake—Or Too Early to Prevent One

Santa Clara County’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, charged with investigating cases of wrongful conviction, has exonerated several people previously convicted of crimes, and also informs attempts to minimize wrongful conviction in the future.

“It’s absolutely essential for every DA’s office to have a conviction integrity unit. We want the public to have faith and confidence in our convictions.”

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Alexandra Nikolchev, documentary filmmaker, and Zara Katz, photo editor, producer and director of photography at Narratively, are the team behind Hot in Here Productions. They turn concepts and facts into compelling stories for documentary and branded content.