Alameda County district attorney Pamela Price released a policy Wednesday directing her deputies to reduce charges to the minimum sentence and remove sentencing enhancements.
The policy, which aims to restore balance to sentencing and reduce recidivism, bars prosecutors from requiring defendants to plead to enhancements, or additional charges and allegations, with exceptions, according to the Price’s special directive. Exceptions primarily involve the most vulnerable victims and “specified extraordinary circumstances,” including hate crime allegations, sexual and physical abuse allegations and sex trafficking allegations.
The directive is effective as of Monday and staff feedback will be considered for the finalized version by March 31.
UC Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon endorses Price’s policy, explaining that excessive prison crowding and the aging prison population in California can be attributed to enhancements, which can add on as many as five to 15 additional years based on aggravating factors.
“A lot of DAs have gotten used to just seeking those over the years both to force people to plead as soon as possible, but also to maximize their time,” Simon said. “Taking a step back with Price’s office and saying, ‘We’re generally not going to seek this, there has to be some really compelling reason to go for these enhancements,’ makes a lot of sense.”
Simon noted that Price’s policy has been endorsed and strongly recommended by the governor’s committee on penal code revisions. Over the past two years, the committee, comprising experts across the state, searched for ways to reduce the burden of incarceration in the state.
Simon also spoke on Price’s emphasis on probation, adding that it is “not a perfect system.” He added that there is a common notion that probation does more harm than good as it acts as a “tether” to the criminal legal system if violated. Probation officers nowadays are also county-based, with some more progressive than others, he added.
“It’s certainly better than prison from a harm reduction point of view but it may not be the ultimate solution,” Simon said. “It makes sense to me that she would want to lean into probation as something that can at least offer the public a sense that there are other tools for those people who they imagine are somehow going to return to dangerous behavior.”
In terms of the effectiveness of Price’s policy, Simon highlights some inherent risks. Progressive prosecutors try to push for direction-changing policies but should be wary of the fact that voters are rather concerned about crime, Simon noted.
He added that it is a “risk” for her there, especially if crime continues to increase over the next couple of years.
“There are definitely already prosecutors in that office that are obviously talking to the media,” Simon said, referring to the Berkeley Scanner article in which Price’s directive was first publicly mentioned. “Price’s policies are a dramatic change from that, which I support, but they’re going to be implemented by people who are, or could be, in many cases, deeply unsympathetic.”
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Tya Modeste shared similar uncertainties in Price’s directive. Modeste noted the high rate of violent crimes in Oakland and other areas of the county make it difficult to envision such a plan.
Modeste added that many offenders coming in and out of custody are already on probation and that almost all the felonies are violent.
“What happens when offenders already on probation re-offend? What do you say to the victims and their families?” Modeste said in an email.
Price’s office has not responded to a request for comment as of press time.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s stance is one supporting reentry, reform and above all, public safety, Modeste concluded.
Simon called policing conservative in that it operates based on decades-, if not centuries-old ideas of how to preserve public safety.
“Getting prosecutors who have the kind of progressive vision that Price does is in many ways, the first and most important step we can make, because they do have so much influence and so much power,” Simon said.
Eleanor Dalton contributed to this article.