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New DA Deborah Gonzalez Announces Criminal Justice Reforms

District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez.

Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez—who was elected on a platform of criminal justice reform—is wasting no time, sharing news of dozens of changes she instituted on her first day in office.

A legal memo she released Jan. 1 described more than 40 new policies that took effect immediately, addressing issues like systemic bias, racial inequity, the precarious status of undocumented immigrants and the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Among those new policies: Gonzalez said the DA’s office will no longer seek the death penalty; will not press charges for simple possession of marijuana, instead urging police to issue citations; will drop charges of simple possession of other drugs or refer them for pre-trial diversion; won’t press charges for possession of drug-related objects; and will end the common prosecutorial practice of piling on multiple charges to encourage defendants to take a plea bargain.

The pretrial diversion program—which allows first-time offenders to perform community service and have their records expunged—will be expanded. Prosecutors will no longer seek cash bail for nonviolent defendants or those charged with making threats, and defendants charged with violent crimes will also be considered for a recommendation of “own recognizance” or OR bonds on a case-by-case basis. 

Gonzalez said she is shifting resources to determining whether cases should be brought to trial at all, and will conduct a review of all open cases within the next 60–90 days. Her office will also review sentences that have already been imposed. When plea bargaining or recommending sentences going forward, prosecutors will take into account both the victim’s need for justice and the defendant’s rehabilitation needs (such as mental health issues), and will consider alternatives to incarceration like house arrest. Sentencing recommendations will include a statement of cost to taxpayers for incarceration or probation. Gonzalez is also seeking to limit probation, which she said does little to make the community safer. In addition, she opposes revoking probation for technical violations like missed curfews.

For juveniles, Gonzalez said the DA’s office “will be guided by the fundamental principle that kids in the juvenile system are minors who are still cognitively developing and should not be transferred to adult court” unless required by law. The presumption will be that students should not prosecuted for school conduct except assault with a deadly weapon or felony sexual assault.

“These are the first of many reforms that we know will improve both equity and safety in our community,” Gonzalez said in a news release. “When you’re repairing more than two decades of neglect and injustice, it can’t all be fixed at the stroke of midnight.  However, we have an aggressive plan in place to follow through on every promise I have made to this community to transform the Western Judicial Circuit. That means not only addressing the known issues, but shining a light on every aspect of the criminal justice system in this circuit to address challenges that a lack of transparency may have hidden from public view.” 

On the transparency front, Gonzalez said the DA’s office will publish statistics monthly that will detail felony arrests, cases brought to trial, the outcome of those cases, the average bond, incarceration rate and length of stay in prison for each type of offense, and data broken down by age, race and gender.Gonzalez also announced that Rebecca Fogal, a 15-year veteran prosecutor, will serve as chief assistant DA. Gonzalez’s transition team is being led by David Lyle, senior counsel for communications at the American Constitution Society, a progressive civil liberties group; and Travis Williams, a public defender featured in the HBO documentary Gideon’s Army.

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