Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced Wednesday that he will no longer seek the death penalty, the first in a series of reforms his office is implementing to address racial discrimination within the criminal justice system.
Rosen had supported the death penalty in the past, especially when he viewed the murders through the eyes of the victims, he said.
In a news release, Rosen said:
“But, I also trusted that as a society we could ensure the fundamental fairness of the legal process for all people. With every exoneration, with every story of racial injustice, it becomes clearer to me that this is not the world we live in. And shamefully our society’s most drastic and devastating law enforcement punishment has been used disproportionately against defendants of color.”
A report by the district attorney’s office on race and prosecutions found the largest disparities for Black/African American defendants, who make up 3 percent of the county’s population, were in robbery cases (23 percent of all charged cases), resisting arrest at 16 percent, residential burglary at 13 percent and second-degree burglary at 24 percent.
For Latinx defendants, who make up 26 percent of the county population, the largest disproportionality was for felony DUIs at 72 percent, murder/attempted murder at 58 percent, residential burglary at 58 percent and corporal injury on a spouse at 56 percent.
Rosen said the reasoning behind eliminating the death penalty is that it often takes a long time for someone on death row to be executed, using a significant amount of public funds without finality to the victim’s families.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last year also signed an executive order that effectively ends the death penalty in the state, at least for the duration of his time in office.
Only 13 people in California have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, though 140 people on death row have died from other causes as of Tuesday, according to the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation.
California’s death row is the largest in the country with more than 700 condemned prisoners, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In the wake of the killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, Rosen met with local community leaders and neighborhood activists, criminal justice reform advocates, elected officials, and prosecutors within his office to create a set of reforms.
The first set of reforms include: working to end cash bail in California, stopping requesting fines and fees from indigent defendants and creating a fund with illegal money seized from criminals to be awarded to different organizations addressing race and inequity in the community.
The district attorney’s office will also immediately expunge the criminal record of those who are eligible and have completed probation, and transfer Driving on a Suspended License for Failure to Pay Fines and Fees in Superior Court to be filed in Traffic Court as infractions.
A Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team will also be created by the district attorney’s office to investigate criminal misconduct of police, including the excessive use of force.
The San Jose Police Officers Association disagreed with Rosen’s reforms, saying it will “increase the use of force and attacks on officers.”
SJPOA President Paul Kelly said by creating the Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team, Rosen is insulting every police chief’s integrity.
“Local police chiefs and the Sheriff have not been shy about disciplining officers and referring criminal cases to the district attorney when warranted. The hubris displayed by Mr. Rosen and disrespect to other law enforcement leaders is galling.”
Rosen calls the initiative “Bend the Arc,” inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s 1965 Speech where he said:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“It gives us a powerful reminder that we can’t just sit back and wait and hope that justice happens. It won’t. We have to actively, purposely, and intentionally seek justice and pursue justice to achieve justice.”
A full list of Bend the Arc reforms can be found online here.