With protests nationwide in reaction to recent police overreach, California should focus on three long overdue structural and procedural reforms to ourcriminal justice system. These recommendations have been formed over my decades as a criminal defense lawyer in Chino and surrounding areas of the Inland Empire and East San Gabriel Valley.
In terms of police abuse, the most important structural change would be to end the cozy relationship between the district attorney and the police departments. Very often the district attorney is an elected position and so is the sheriff. The two work hand in glove to apprehend and prosecute crime. In addition, one may support the other for election or reelection. This creates a situation where it is politically very difficult for the district attorney to prosecute police officers.
There is a fairly simple solution to this problem: All alleged police abuse resulting in death or serious bodily injury should be both investigated and if appropriate prosecuted by the state attorney general. There are other possible solutions such as the city council or county supervisors appointing the chief of police or county sheriff which could be used in addition to this first suggestion.
A second major way in which the criminal justice system could be improved would be to improve the quality of legal representation for the defendant. In California the public defenders are fairly good, but some of them are handling up to 400 cases at once. You simply can’t do a good job representing 400 clients at the same time. As a private attorney, I have only a fraction of this case load.
The district attorneys know this and, many times, give worse offers to the public defender than they do to private attorneys.
But the worst aspect of this is that, in murder and other serious crimes which go to trial, serious mistakes are made by the public defender which cannot be corrected on appeal.
Indigent defendants should have another choice beside the public defender. This could be accomplish by giving private attorneys a modest fee by the county to take on semi-pro bono cases. This would have the additional effect of reducing the caseload for the public defender.
Finally there must be some procedural reform of the death penalty process.
As it stands, an appellate court can only overturn a death penalty if it finds that there was a legal error. Although insufficiency of the evidence is a legal ground, the courts have ruled that the insufficiency must be a nearly total insufficiency of evidence and that any substantial evidence will support a conviction.
I believe that in death penalty cases, appellate courts should also have the option of reducing the penalty to life in prison if the appellate court finds a reasonable doubt based on the transcript of the trial.
These reforms would not cure every defect of the criminal justice system, but they represent a good start