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What I learned from two (half) days in prison and how I hope it helps save my city

By |2019-11-06T08:01:57-08:00October 7th, 2019|

Written by District Attorney Kevin Rooney, about our Transformative Justice Symposium inside prison.

Even for the most skeptical participants, the idea that these visitors they were meeting for the first time were unfeeling monsters went away before lunch on the first day. Gradually, in ways no one new to this work could have imagined, walls came down, tears were shed, and hugs were exchanged, as were promises to write and to pray for one another.

They’re not monsters, the men dressed in blue uniforms realized one by one, they’re just prosecutors.


Almost nine years ago, my wife and I moved three thousand miles away from our families and most of our friends so that I could start my career as a criminal prosecutor in the New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney’s Office. It was far from easy (or cheap…), but we loved the people we worked with and met in New York, I loved my job, and if our family ties hadn’t been as strong as they are, I probably would’ve stayed at DANY for the rest of my career.

But our family ties are strong, and in 2013, my family needed us home. My dad was sick and my three brothers had done more than their share to help him and my mom battle his illness. So we made the decision to move back to California to be closer to our families as soon as I finished my three-year commitment to the office.

As we did, I also assessed the health of my hometown of Stockton. In 2012, the same year the city became the largest municipality in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy, there were more homicides in Stockton (71) than there were in Manhattan (66). At the time, Stockton had around 300,000 residents. Manhattan had about 1.5 million on the books, and that doesn’t count the millions of tourists, commuters, and other visitors who come to the island each year.

So I called a former supervisor and mentor at the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office where I’d interned as a college student. I told her we were moving back and that I was looking for a job. Never one to beat around the bush, she told me, “You need to apply to our office. We’re hiring and I’m running for DA.” In 2014, Tori Verber Salazar was elected to serve as the county’s first female district attorney. She was re-elected last year.

When people would ask why I was leaving New York to work in Stockton, I gave them my standard line: “I want to help get shooters off the streets.” I thought it sounded good, and I thought it was what the community desperately needed.

I got plenty of opportunities to do just that almost immediately upon my return in 2013. In the past six years, I’ve prosecuted dozens of shootings, armed robberies, and homicides. Most of those cases ended with young men (overwhelmingly young men of color, as were their victims) being sentenced to prison terms, often for a very long time, and in some cases potentially for the rest of their lives.

And yet, despite getting all those shooters off the streets, Stockton is still one of the most violent cities in the nation. After a promising 2018 that saw a 40% drop in homicides and a similar drop in non-fatal shootings, Stockton is on pace for a year like 2012 after suffering its 21st homicide of the year last week.

The violence haunts me. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, even before my feet hit the floor, is check my e-mail on my phone. I hold my breath as it loads and pray that there won’t be an email detailing another shooting or homicide that happened in the 4–6 hours I restlessly slept. When there is, it implants a pit deep in my stomach that stays there all day as I picture another mother burying her child or crying on my shoulder at her son’s killer’s sentencing hearing.

What I’ve realized in these six years is that while we can and must work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute crimes of violence where we have failed to intervene and prevent them, we cannot arrest, prosecute, and sentence our way to peace. We must find other solutions and to do so we must forge new partnerships, because we — the district attorney’s office, law enforcement writ large, government — cannot do it alone.

It is with this search for solutions in mind that a large group of my colleagues in San Joaquin County and I jumped at a truly unique opportunity afforded us this past week by Restore: Justice (https://restorecal.org/), our forward-thinking District Attorney Verber Salazar, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and its Office of Victims’ Rights and Services. For the better part of two days spent inside a CDCR facility, in what Restore calls its Transformative Justice Symposium, we talked to, but, much more importantly, listened to, the stories of members of two groups: incarcerated men convicted of serious violent crimes (mostly homicides) and family members of homicide victims.

The following are some of the takeaways that I plan to share with anyone who will listen.

Restoring humanity to the system

Every couple of months, I have an opportunity to speak, in a small group setting, to young men in Stockton who have been identified as at risk of being involved in gun violence. Every time, I start the same way:

“My name is Kevin Rooney. I am a son, a father, a husband, a brother, and an uncle.” Eventually I tell them that I work at the DA’s Office, but I lead the way I do because I believe we need reminders of one another’s humanity to really see and hear each other.

As prosecutors in an adversarial system like ours, it is rare that we get an opportunity to speak directly to someone after he or she is charged with a crime. Some prosecutors may not even ever look a defendant in the eye from arraignment through sentencing. In part, that stems from respect for the accused person’s constitutional right to counsel. It may also be seen as upholding a high standard of professional and ethical conduct to carry oneself unemotionally so as not to let one’s emotions cloud one’s judgment regarding the pursuit of justice in any one case.

Similarly, of the men in blue in our circles last week, none had spoken to a prosecutor before the symposium. They had their own preconceived notions of who we were and how we looked at them. They were as surprised as anyone to see the tears streaming down our faces as they told their stories.

They are all sons, too, and many of them are fathers, brothers, husbands, and uncles as well. Some of them are even grandfathers. As we heard their stories, the rest of us around the circle stopped focusing on the crime each had committed and saw them for the people they were. People who made mistakes and, even more than that, people who had done some terrible things, but people deserving of love and forgiveness all the same.

In our circle, no one was more forgiving or understanding of the incarcerated men’s stories than the moms. These were moms who lost their sons to violence. Their stories, and the stories of their lost loved ones, were eerily similar to those of the men in CDCR blue. The moms showed remarkable strength and unfathomable grace in sharing their stories, listening to the men’s stories, and forgiving the men for the harm they had inflicted on their victims and their communities.

It is not a far leap from depersonalization to dehumanization. We — especially prosecutors — would all do well to remind ourselves of the humanity of everyone with whom we come into contact. Even, and probably especially, when that person doesn’t look like us or anyone with whom we have ever had a close relationship. We must remember that when we argue or bargain for a prison term, a real person — not a “monster” or an “animal,” but someone just like us and just like the men we embraced over those two days — will serve that sentence.

Understanding why we incarcerate

As part of the restorative and transformative justice processes, each incarcerated man admitted his crimes to us, named his victims, and expressed real remorse for his actions and all of the pain he had caused so many people. In our circle, all of the commitment crimes had been committed over ten years ago, and three of the four had been committed more than twenty years ago. As I listened, I thought of the defendants in my serious violent cases and why I often believe that incarceration is a central part of the right result. I thought in terms of something I heard recently on one podcast or another about how people we incarcerate almost always fall into one of two categories: people we’re scared of and people we’re mad at.

I have no doubt that the prosecutors and judges who handled the cases of the four men in our group in court believed that all four fit in the first category. When they committed their crimes, they were young, they were broken, and they violently victimized other members of their communities. Three of them took lives. Society was rightfully fearful that if not incapacitated, they would harm or kill again. We were scared of them.

But what about now? I’m almost thirty-seven. One of the men in our group has been in prison since the year after I was born. He’s in his sixties. He told us that he has not had an incident of violence or aggression since he came to prison. If that is true, are we still scared of what he might do if released because of what he did forty years ago, or are we just still mad at him for his crime?

I’ll be the first one to admit that there are people, statistically few as they are, who will present clear and present dangers to others until the day they die. Those people will never leave the “people we’re scared of” category, and when we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one of them has committed a crime deserving of a life sentence, that’s likely the appropriate result.

However, as a society, we should think very hard about the morality, let alone the economic wisdom, of locking up and keeping locked up people we’re not scared of at all, or not scared of anymore, but merely mad at for what they’ve done. How long is long enough to show the offender and the community that we are mad at him, that we disapprove of his crime?

For prosecutors, this is more than theoretical. Members of the public often call for crimes, particularly violent ones, to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.” If we were to take that cry as our directive in each case, the incarceration rate we would see would dwarf the alarming rate we already see today. In reality, the overwhelming majority of cases are pled out and result in sentences far less than the maximums prescribed by our elected legislators. What this means is that we, the prosecutors, almost always decide how long is long enough for someone to be locked up and locked away from our community.

The worst kept secret, of course, is that most of us are ill-equipped to make these determinations. We need help with that. In the absence of more and better information to inform those decisions, the best we can hope for is that similarly situated offenders are treated similarly and that factors that have zero to do with risk of recidivism — such as race and the personal feelings of the assigned prosecutor — do not impact plea offers and sentencing recommendations.

Putting the R in CDCR for all inmates

From our time with them, it was clear that the incarcerated men in our group had actively participated in counseling, therapy, and other rehabilitative programming while in prison. Some of them even lead counseling sessions and mentor others inside. Through those programs, they have gained insight into the things that led them to prison and built skills to help them cope and thrive both inside prison walls and if and when they are released back into the community.

What was also clear, however, was that in terms of programs and services, not all state facilities are created equally. The men we met had all spent time in multiple prisons since beginning their sentences. Each spoke of reaching a turning point in their lives through one of the programs offered at one facility or another, but also of the unavailability of quality programs at different stops along the way.

It is important to fund and support high quality rehabilitative programming for those serving long prison terms, but at least equally important to make sure such programming is accessible to short-termers and those spending months and even years in county jails. The last thing that anyone should want is for someone we feel needs to go to jail or prison to return to the community worse off than when he left. As prosecutors, we would likely be more comfortable with shorter prison terms if we were more confident in the rehabilitative potential of our prison system to return that person better off than it receives him.

Rejecting the myth of childhood resiliency

Near the end of our time together, one of the incarcerated men grabbed the microphone and shared a profound observation with the entire group. To paraphrase, he said, “People always say that children are resilient, but when you look around the room, you see men still suffering from the trauma of their childhood.”

“Don’t worry about it. Children are resilient.” We hear it — and we say it — all the time, but I’m not sure that we really believe it, or that we should. We — parents, adults, society — tell ourselves that children are resilient because it helps us sleep at night knowing that there are children — in our own homes, our own neighborhoods, our own communities — who right now are suffering and who have suffered unimaginable harm at the hands, or from the mouths, of other people in their families, homes, neighborhoods, and communities. We want so desperately to believe that those adorable little boys and girls who endure abuse, neglect, abandonment, food and shelter insecurity, and who are often witnesses to and victims of serious violent crimes, will somehow miraculously overcome those traumatic beginnings to become happy, healthy, thriving, and law-abiding adults.

The men in those blue CDCR uniforms in our circles were once upon a time those adorable little boys who now, years and even decades later, have finally learned to cope with the damage done to them as children and young adults. Without betraying their confidences by sharing the details of their trauma, suffice to say that each man I met experienced things no child or young adult ever should. And each man turned somewhere, or to something, or to somebody in an attempt to escape their trauma, like drugs, gangs, and older people who preyed on and manipulated them. And each man’s story of his life on the outside ended the same way: with an extremely long if not a lifetime prison sentence for committing a violent crime.

A plea for help

At the end of the day on Friday, our discussion turned to violence prevention. How do we prevent the harm these men and these moms suffered — and that the men ultimately inflicted? Without exception, all of the offered solutions started with how we care for our children. There was overwhelming consensus around the importance of protecting young people from trauma and, where we can’t, helping them cope and recover in positive, pro-social, and peaceful ways.

The key to building a future for Stockton and San Joaquin County different from our violent past and present lies in investment in our youth. Ten years ago, the seventeen-year-old shooter driving around last night looking for his gang rivals was just a little boy of seven. It was not inevitable that he would end up in that car with that gun. Bad things happened to and around that seven-year-old child as he became a young man.

Let me be clear: the trauma he experienced does not excuse or justify his crimes, but it does explain how he came to believe what he was doing was okay, right, or even necessary. Along the way, he needed someone, anyone, to show him a different path and to equip him with the tools to navigate it. Instead, the probability is depressingly high that he’ll catch a case or a bullet before he catches a break.

If you live in Stockton or a community like it, take ownership of its future. As we often hear after yet another mass shooting, thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need you. Our young people need you. They need your time, your talent, and your treasure. Don’t wait for some politician or government agency to tell you how to help. Start with your neighbors. It costs nothing to invite the boy and girl next door to join you and your children or grandchildren at the park. Just show up and show them that they matter, that you care, and that they can depend on you. Then wake up and do it again.

If you do work in a government agency like a district attorney’s office, think about how you interact with your community as a representative of that community — from victims and their families to defendants and theirs and everyone in between. Remember that they are all people deserving of respect, dignity, and opportunity.

In a time and in a country of unprecedented prosperity, people in cities like Stockton and Chicago are still dying in our streets and rotting in our jails and prisons at alarming rates. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have enough — we are enough — to cure what ails us.

Now we just have to do it.

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