One of California’s top prosecutors says it’s important to keep deserving persons out of prison and to help deserving incarcerated people build a successful life upon release.
Progress toward rehabilitation and strengthening reentry programs for “justice involved” people was discussed at San Quentin by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley on Oct. 13.
O’Malley visited the state prison to converse with incarcerated men about some of the programs she supports on the outside. One of those programs is Developing Impacted Lives (DIL).
“A lot of young people who would otherwise go to jail would go to the (DIL) program,” said O’Malley. “Part of what we do with DIL—we meet every month. This is for peer support.”
O’Malley said her office is also trying to help stop people from becoming involved in the criminal justice system. To help reduce crime and recidivism, she also recruits organizations to hire justice involved individuals whose lives are impacted by a criminal conviction.
“By year three, more than 50 percent of those put on felony probation are committing new crimes,” said O’Malley. “We had to own the failure.” In the post tough-on- crime era, programs like DIL have become an important component for prosecutors like O’Malley who are trying to increase public safety. “I’m very happy to be lifting it up” and supporting the program, she said. O’Malley acknowledged that just because someone gets out of jail or prison, it does not mean things will be different. She said, however, DIL is not always the starting point.
Someone without structure may not enter the program immediately, O’Malley said. “It’s not to tell them what to do with their life, but to get them to figure it out for them- selves.” She said the Family Justice Center allocates resources with justice-involved individuals to help them.
One example is Doug Butler, a former Oakland police officer who was convicted of murder and served 20 years in prison. He works with O’Malley’s office and other organizations to help others whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
“It’s a very intense program,” said O’Malley. “Mr. Butler interviews (justice-involved people), but what we really want to know is if they’re ready for the program.
“I do believe there are a lot of programs that understand the value of those who have lived experience,” said O’Malley. She said people like Butler can identify legitimate groups that work for those who are turning their lives around.
“Prepare yourself to be paroled,” Butler told the audience of about a half-dozen men. “We’ll provide you with the training.”
What O’Malley’s office does differently is direct inter- action by aligning individuals with programs like DIL. “In Alameda County, if they get known to us, they’re going to get linked in,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they come from.”
The meeting included O’Malley, some of her staff, SQ News staff, and about a half-dozen students from the University of California at Berkeley along with their professor, William Drummond. They discussed other social issues such as the impact language has on those who are justice-involved.
“How do you build in a program that deals with addiction?” asked Drummond.
“We work with the community,” said O’Malley. “We try to identify the issues they may be having.” At that point, programs like DIL can pair individuals with those who have the same “lived experience” and are “justice involved.”
O’Malley did, however, caution that she has a primary duty beyond helping those who have been convicted of crimes. “I have to be very aware because we also have victims,” she said.
“The governor has put a lot of money into ‘Realignment’ (Assembly Bill 109) and reentry funds,” said O’Malley. She said grant money and Realignment money can be used to support programs like DIL.
“We can put together what it takes,” said O’Malley. “Hopefulness is a lot of what we’re trying to do. The more I talk about this the more I see the wider opportunity.
“I’m happy to do all this stuff,” O’Malley said about her willingness to collaborate with those who are incarcerated. Her reason: to put an end to “Death by hopelessness.”
Around the nation, there are organizations that advocate to stop using what some believe to be belittling language that describes people with criminal records. “Justice involved” are those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, but the term can sometimes be interpreted to mean people who work within the criminal justice system.
At no time during the discussion did O’Malley use the words inmate, prisoner, offender, felon, parolee, formerly incarcerated or any of what some call disparaging words used to describe those who have been convicted of a crime.
O’Malley joined the district attorney’s office in 1984. She has been the chief law enforcement officer in Alameda County since her appointment by the Board of Supervisors in September 2009, according to the county’s website. She was elected to the position in November 2010, 2014 and 2018.
The District Attorney’s Office jurisdiction covers more than 800 square miles and operates out of nine offices, according to the DA’s website. Its mission is to “review and prosecute criminal violations of the laws, to protect consumers and the environment and to support and protect victims of crime within the County on behalf of the people of the State of California.” It has a staff of more than 150 attorneys.