In an unprecedented move, a California district attorney heard first-hand from a group of prisoners explaining that education and early intervention could improve the criminal justice system.
“What we’ve been doing is not working very well,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “I hope you men can be helpful with our effort. We are the first DA system in the United States to use this approach.”
Gascón was accompanied at the March 1 San Quentin News Forum by several of his staff. Also present were about 25 prisoners who participate in one or more of the rehabilitation programs offered in the prison.
Prisoners who spent years examining and evaluating their juvenile delinquency explained why their lives turned to crime. The district attorneys said this new knowledge gave them valuable insight to criminal behavior they could use to help in the prevention of juvenile crime.
Gascón is looking at some of the youth going through the system in San Francisco who had or have parents in prison. “This may have become the norm, and we would like to stop this cycle,” he said. Intervention that includes the parents being part of youth guidance is a key factor in where these young people end up in life.
According to Kris Himmelberger, in prison for attempted murder, “While life is complex, people ultimately chose to commit crimes,” he said. “The environment plays a key factor. Without proper parental guidance, rational decision-making in chaos is difficult. We often make impulsive decisions and regret them later,” added Himmelberger.
All the prisoners speaking at the forum agreed they chose to commit the crimes for which they are imprisoned. They agreed it is important to get at the parents who also need the tools to steer their children from a life of crime. Home is where the cycle needs to be stopped. When you do not have the tools or the opportunity to do what is right, wrong things will happen every time.
“We are here to learn from you men,” said Gascón. “Our hope is to listen to you and find out what you have learned about yourself, and how you got to the place where you wanted to change your life.” Gascón acknowledges that in order for rehabilitation to work, there needs to be support from everyone.
Among the guests was Luis Aroche, the first alternative sentencing planner hired by a district attorney in California. It is part of a new statewide plan to work with low-risk youth. The former gang member helps low-level offenders from ending up behind bars. According to criminal justice experts, Aroche’s position has no equivalent in any prosecutor’s office in the country.
Gascón hired Aroche with state funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan, to help slim the overcrowded prison system, where two-thirds of released prisoners return to custody within three years. The intention is to keep kids from being sent to prison among higher-risk offenders.
“Every time I meet with you guys, it truly motivates me to continue to try and change what I need to do to keep doing the right thing,” said Aroche. “We are grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today. It helps us to better understand the young people we work with.”
Assistant DA Marisa Rodriguez was instrumental in arranging for Gascón to meet with San Quentin prisoners. Rodriguez accompanied about a dozen assistant DAs last November. This was her second visit to a San Quentin News Forum.
“The most powerful part was observing my friends and colleagues taking in all of this,” said Rodriguez. “It is important for us to know all aspects of the criminal justice system.”
“It was a life-changing experience meeting prisoners for the first time, in such a candid way. I’m coming in here because I care about victims,” said Rodriguez.
She commented that public safety is her number one concern, so it is helpful for prosecutors to communicate with those who have been through the system in order to find answers. “When I came here to San Quentin, I thought, ‘What a think tank; what a place to solve a problem.’”
Gascón says he is passionate and devoted to reducing recidivism. “If I can, I will do this,” he insists. “It will be a long process and it will take a lot of people working together. What I’m trying to do is create an evidence-based system to create practices that will keep the community safe.”
Prisoner Malik Harris said, “This is one of those rare opportunities that we can actually have someone from outside come in and listen to us. In the long run, this helps us on the inside to continue with our rehabilitation. It also allows us to share what we’ve learned.”
One of Gascón’s interests with at-risk offenders is to “get them to that place where they want to involve themselves in similar activities, the activities that have made such positive changes in the lives of you men here at San Quentin.”
“Many of these men in San Quentin today should be out there in society,” San Quentin News Senior Adviser John Eagan said. “After what they’ve accomplished while in here, they are the best role models imaginable.”
Assistant DA Sharon Woo thought, “I had to be really detached from the criminal — that has all changed now,” she said. “Any kind of forum that will help change those who are coming back to our community is important to all of us.”
“The second year of realignment implementation will bring more partnership, collaborations, programs, services, and innovations to San Francisco’s criminal justice system,” according to a report issued in December. “There will be a Community Assessment and Services Center; the Adult Probation Department and the Sheriff’s Department will open a Reentry Pod for individuals to be released from state prison for reentry planning and assessment purposes.”
San Francisco City and County agencies and community organizations will provide comprehensive reentry services to clients on AB 109 community supervision, the report added.
Woo wanted to know what drove prisoners from being out on the prison yard, to wanting to come and discuss their actions in a group like the San Quentin Forum.
“What would you tell me as a community member that would help me to help others?” asked Woo. How a prisoner got to the place where he wanted to make a positive change seemed to be the question of the day. Education seemed to be a large part of that conversation.
Prisoner Sam Johnson Sr. said one of the fears he suffered growing up was “being terrorized by my dad.” He said he believes a large part of the problem was that his dad had only a sixth-grade education. “I take full responsibility for all my actions, and part of that responsibility was to get an education. While in prison, I’ve become the first person in my family to obtain a college education,” Johnson said.
The consensus among prisoners and Gascón’s staff members was that education is the key to more productive lives and careers. Getting young at-risk offenders to “that place” can be helped by dialogue from those who made bad choices but turned their lives around, Gascón and Woo said.
In the case of Aroche, he enrolled in City College, and then went on to San Francisco State, where he ended up on the honor roll and graduated with a degree in social work. He started working with Project Rebound, a program for ex-offenders. In addition, he received some therapy.
Aroche said with his street knowledge and his education, he can see someone and say, “This person’s a bad dude. Based on his rap sheet and history, this person is not safe to go back to the community. I can also know what it means to give somebody a second chance.”
Assistant DA Christine Soto DeBerry said, “I have been with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for two years. Our district attorney has a really interesting and different perspective on making the community safe. I am optimistic that there are many solutions and I am impressed with the way you all opened up in this dialogue to help others. I am appreciative of your candor.”
Gascón thanked the forum saying, “I personally find this to be of great value. The people who came with me today are all volunteers who want to help our community, help our youth, and help you men upon your return to society. I am thankful that you guys shared your stories with me and the city of San Francisco,” he concluded.
At a meeting with the visitors before the forum, Warden Chappell pointed out that San Quentin offers numerous rehabilitation programs led by some 3,000 volunteers. He and Gascón discussed the possibility of modifying sentencing procedures to encourage prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs.
Gascón vowed to continue to be part of this endeavor for public safety.