Santa Clara County District Attorney, Jeff Rosen paid a visit to San Quentin on Feb. 28 to discuss crime punishment, rehabilitation, and reentry with about two dozen inmates.
“It’s not very often that I’m in a room with a lot of guys who’ve committed serious crimes,” Rosen said to the room full of convicted murderers, robbers, and three-strikers.
Rosen took part in the fourth San Quentin News Forum, the second where a Bay Area district attorney ventured inside San Quentin to discuss criminal justice policy with inmates.
“I agree that a lot of people don’t know what happens in prison, and I’m one of them,” Rosen said. “I didn’t give much thought to what happens to defendants after they are convicted.”
“Most people don’t think about what goes on behind prison walls,” added forum participant and criminal defense attorney Dan Barton. Barton said he has known Rosen for a long time and complimented him for implementing “best practices,” in areas of criminal justice.
Editor-in-Chief Arnulfo Garcia said the news forums exist so that prisoners and public safety officials could interact and exchange ideas about some of the toughest problems related to incarceration, rehabilitation and reentry.
The meeting began with the inmates introducing themselves to Rosen, Webby and Barton by stating their crime, sentence, and county in which they were convicted.
Rosen told the inmates, “I’m here because Dan gave me a copy of the paper. I was quite struck at the quality of it.”
Rosen invited the inmates to give their opinion on what prison programs are most effective for rehabilitating offenders.
“Some of the programs that have helped me are Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous; they show you the culture of what appeals to us in that cycle of violence,” said Miguel Quezada, 32. Quezada is in his 16th year of a 45 year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder.
“It’s a community thing, and at this end we receive programs, but it has to start at the beginning,” Quezada said. “It took me about 15 years to get to San Quentin and get involved in these programs. Education is also important in prison. We have Patten University here and a few others. But, I think there’s a gap for inmates who want to gain a higher education.”
Jorge Heredia, 39, sentenced to 13 years, plus life for first-degree attempted murder talked about several programs he’s taken. Heredia enrolled in PUP. He is also involved in Victims Offender Education Group, San Quentin Inmate Resources Education Studies, Guiding Rage Into Power, and The Last Mile, a program that teaches inmates how to turn socially responsible ideas into a business model. “We’re all trying to find ways to give back. These programs help me,” said Heredia who has been incarcerated for 16 years.
“For me No More Tears and the community-based group Healing Circle gave me the opportunity to meet Paulette Brown,” said Samuel Hearnes, 36, of Fresno County. “She told the story of her son and his murder. She did this and broke down in tears. When I saw that, it helped me take accountability for what I had done. Many of us look beyond the prison system because we want to help. The community is as much ours as it is yours.” Hearnes was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997.
“The groups help you understand responsibility and accept your role,” said Vaughn Miles, 40, chairman of The Richmond Project. The Richmond Project was created to help stop the cycle of violence and incarceration by re-connecting to youth. Inmates from the city of Richmond make up the self-help group.
“What makes it easy is that you see fellow inmates doing positive things. Many times, inmates see other inmates who used to be involved in a negative lifestyle change into someone living a positive lifestyle—witnessing the results of change is very powerful.” In 1995, Miles was convicted of first-degree murder in Alameda County.
“These programs teach us that we can and should take responsibility,” said David Basile, who has recently been found suitable for parole after serving more than 30 years behind bars for murder. “I was a racist. I only realized the magnitude of my faulty belief system after taking American Government offered by Patten University. During that class, I noticed how I had limited myself through buying into lies and misrepresentations about my fellow man. It was then when I began to develop tremendous empathy for the black man’s plight and the shame I had to deal with for my previous actions and behavior toward the black man.” Basile is schedule to be released sometime in May.
“I’m not sure how long race has been an issue,” said Walter Spraeka, 54. In 1995, Spraeka was convicted of residential burglary and is serving a sentence of 37 years to life under the Three-Strike Law.
“But it’s taken many decades to get where we are today. It’s (race) a real sensitive issue with the prison system because it deals with all sorts of dynamics.”
“It’s more relaxed in San Quentin,” said Emile DeWeaver, 34, of Alameda County. “But the race issue still exists here.” DeWeaver is serving a sentence of 67 years to life for murder. He has been imprisoned since 1998.
“I like that you talk about people who want to give back to the community,” Rosen told the inmates.
Rosen said that after working in the D.A.’s office for 15 years, he became dissatisfied with how it was operating. He said the office lost some of its credibility and accountability when his predecessors ended the Innocence Project.
He decided to seek office, campaigning to bring credibility and accountability back to the district attorney’s office.
In addition, he said he also wants to make minor changes in the Three Strikes Law. “I met with the folks from Stanford and listened to them. The changes they proposed were pretty reasonable,” he said, adding, “If a person commits the same crime, they should receive the same time. One of the things important in the criminal justice system is to have consistency. These laws affect you all. I don’t believe in throwing lives away,” he told the inmates.
He was elected to office in 2010.
Rosen then created the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). He said the CIU examines practices in the D.A.’s office and police departments with the intent to “vigorously pursue justice.”
Regarding Santa Clara County reentry services, Rosen said, “I’m lucky I work in a county that devotes resources to reentry,” adding, “We have a resource re-entry center. It’s about 500 yards from the district attorney’s office. It’s a one-stop place for classes, training and how to get medical services.”
Aly Tamboura, who is coming to the end of his sentence, said he wanted to give back to his community by talking to people about taking the right path in life.
“On the one hand, I think it’s helpful for you to talk with high school students. On the other hand, I want to be careful that we don’t glorify things,” Rosen told Tamboura. “I think a better audience for you might be other inmates or kids who are already going down that path, perhaps juveniles. I believe in second chances and change.”
Sean Webby, Rosen’s Public Communications Officer, once a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and The Gazette in New York City, said, “I’m proud to be a journalist,” then turning to San Quentin News reporters, “I’m proud to be sitting here amongst you. We’re a brotherhood. You get into journalism to get to the truth.”
Rosen grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from University of California, Los Angeles.
He said criminal law interested him the most, and he wanted to help victims of crime, which drew him to the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office in 1995.