Guilty till proven innocent

Head Sacramento County public defender says the justice system is broken. Get used to it.

Illustration By robert armstrong

Calipatria lies 574 miles south of Sacramento, a gritty desert outpost on the southeast side of the Salton Sea, not far from the Mexican border. The town’s singular claim to fame is its flagpole, the flag of which flaps in the breeze at sea level, 184 feet above Calipatria. Some 7000 souls live in this bleached out hellhole, counting the 4000 inmates at Calipatria State Prison.

A friend of mine recently returned from Calipatria, where she visited her son for the first time since he was sent to prison last fall. Last spring, the people of California made her son an offer he couldn’t refuse: Plead guilty to discharging a firearm during a robbery, or risk 25-to-life in open court for shooting a young woman in the leg. I was there in court the day the kid, still a teenager, copped the plea. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison. It was his first offense.

Willfully shooting a person in the leg is obviously a serious crime, even though the victim’s wounds in this case were superficial. Still, a 22-year prison sentence for a first offense hardly seems proportional. His mother went berserk, lashing out at the person who seemed most responsible for the outcome, her son’s public defender, who retaliated with her own outburst of anger. It was ugly. Similar scenes play out at the Sacramento Superior Court on a regular basis. There’s not too much Chief Public Defender Paulino Duran can do about it.

The criminal-justice system’s polarity has shifted, Duran explained to me during a recent interview in his downtown office. Suspects were once presumed innocent until proven guilty; today they are presumed guilty until proven innocent—his words. The system of due process as he knew it coming of age in the 1960s no longer exists. It’s been snuffed out by the politics of fear.

Listen up.

This is Sacramento’s head public defender talking. You may need his services someday. He’s telling you our criminal-justice system is broken, perhaps beyond repair.

My friend’s son is not alone. Because he used a firearm during the robbery, an automatic penalty enhancement kicked in, one of hundreds of ill-advised individual enhancements that have been enacted during three decades of “let’s get tough on crime” hysteria. Just carrying a firearm gets you an automatic 10-year sentence. Discharging it gets you 20 years. Shooting someone gets you 25-to-life.

Defendants never choose door No. 3, Duran says. It’s a Hobson’s choice. They’re too scared to take their chances in front of a jury and risk a life sentence. In fact, as if it was common knowledge, he states that 100 percent of the defendants offered similar deals choose to plea out. That is, 100 percent never go to trial and instead go straight to jail or prison, often with lengthy sentences that would have been deemed draconian just a generation ago.

Duran’s says the 14 attorneys in his office aren’t shy about going to trial. At any given time, approximately 10 cases are in session. But public defenders have a duty to explain the pitfalls of going to trial to their individual clients, based on the merits of the case and their own experience in court. In today’s legal atmosphere, more often than not, there’s only one choice. That’s lead to dramatically overcrowded prisons where 28.7 percent of the population is African-American, compared to 6.8 percent of the state’s residents.

The power to weigh evidence in individual cases has been transferred from judges and juries to the whims of voters fanned by victims’ rights groups, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the media. Experts disagree how effective such enhancements are as a deterrent. For example, the Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that more than 10 years after its inception, the jury is still out on California’s “three-strikes” law.

About all anyone can say for certain is that such laws are costing the state’s taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, even as they reduce conditions in our prisons to medieval levels. Thanks to overcrowding, my friend’s son has been deposited in a hole in the desert about as far away from his mother as he could get. It cost her a month’s wages to rent a car, pay for gas and a room in Calipatria’s one motel.

She doesn’t like to view the epidemic of youth violence that swept her son away through colored lenses, and I won’t reveal her race, religion or creed here. However, you have all the information you need to make an educated guess, if you haven’t done so already.