By Salvador Solorio
Journalism Guild Writer
Many of the judges Gov. Jerry Brown appointed in the past five years have a public defender background, according to KQED’s The California Report.
“Observers said the sizeable number of public defender appointments is a big shift from Brown’s predecessors, who largely appointed prosecutors,” noted the report.
“Since taking office five years ago, Brown has made 309 appointments to the bench. A KQED analysis shows that 26 percent, or 81 of those elevated, have been public defenders at one point in their careers,” the report states. “About 14 percent were district attorneys, and… 31 percent had some prosecutorial background.”
Since Brown’s election to his third term in 2010, the justice system has undergone a host of dramatic changes. The changes engineered or supported by Brown were made in large part to ease overcrowding in the state’s prison system.
Brown pushed through Realignment, which shifted the responsibility for the supervision of thousands of offenders from state prisons to local jails. Recently Brown proposed a ballot measure that aims to let nonviolent offenders qualify earlier for parole if they participate in rehabilitation programs,
Brown’s appointments reflect a significant shift from the “tough on crime” trends of the 1990s and early 2000s, which filled state prisons far beyond capacity and led to a federal court order to reduce the state’s prison population, according to the report.
A more-diverse bench will make a more-balanced system, said Michael Ogul, president of the California Public Defenders Association.
“Now, the hope is that the new era of public defender judges will actually be people who are not jaded, who are genuinely open-minded, open to considering the totality of the evidence, and trying to understand the background of the individual who appears before them,” Ogul said.
Brown has said he believes diversity extends beyond someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender—it also includes their life and work experience.
The governor also said that “using and manipulating the fear of crime has allowed one segment of our society” – law enforcement – to dominate the bench. But prosecutors aren’t the only qualified lawyers “The judges are supposed to be independent. You want judges that have a commercial background, you want judges that have a prosecutorial background, city attorneys, or county counsel, or small practice, plaintiffs’ practice – you want a diversity, instead of kind of a one note fits all.”
By Salvador Solorio