FREMONT, Calif. — Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price has a vision for public safety that looks markedly different than the system that is in place today, but not everyone supports the transformation voters elected her to enact.
Addressing a packed town hall at Niles Discover Church on Wednesday night, Price outlined her approach, emphasizing proactive measures to prevent crime rather than relying solely on punitive responses. While her role as the district attorney is limited in its ability to prevent or deter crime, Price said her office is working on initiatives aimed at reducing repeat offenses, advocating for victims, holding law enforcement accountable and providing alternatives to incarceration for those with mental illnesses.
Invoking the wisdom of the late South African bishop and human rights activist Desmond Tutu, Price said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
The event was not without its heated moments. A group of protesters affiliated with a recall effort against Price repeatedly interrupted the event to voice their grievances. Despite the interruptions, Price remained focused on her message, explaining why there is a need for immediate public safety reform in Alameda County.
Confronting racism and mass incarceration
Price addressed the alarming racial disparities within the criminal legal system. Even though Black people make up just over 10% of the county’s population, 82% of individuals under 21 serving life without the possibility of parole are Black. If you go to the county’s Juvenile Justice Center, all of the incarcerated children are Black and brown, Price said. In order to reverse this trend, Price said her office has established guidelines for charging suspects and is creating systems for tracking those charges.
Price defended her policy, Special Directive 23-01, to limit the use of enhancements, which add more years onto a convicted person’s sentence, in serious felony cases. This is essential in curbing mass incarceration, Price said. Beyond being applied in a racially biased manner, Price said longer sentences necessitate more investments in prisons instead of investments in communities.
“The use of these enhancements has driven the explosion of prisons,” Price said.
Meanwhile enhancements do not stop or deter crime, Price said, so it’s important to find other strategies that do work in preventing upstream harm. Price responded to critiques that her policies help foster crime by saying that there are many drivers of crime in the community, including mental illness and interpersonal disputes.
“A lot of things drive crime that have nothing to do with the policies of the district attorney,” Price said.
Mental illness crisis at Santa Rita Jail
The mental illness crisis within Santa Rita Jail was also a major topic of discussion.
A 2021 U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed that approximately 40% of the jail’s population is on the mental health caseload, with 20% to 25% suffering from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Price said she made a commitment to the voters in this county to reduce those numbers, but that “Alameda County has a 5150 crisis.”
“We are leading the state in terms of the number of people who we involuntarily commit to either Santa Rita County Jail and John George (Psychiatric Hospital),” Price said. “We are cycling people between the jail and John George and we have not gotten to the root of that problem.”
Under Price’s leadership, the number of lawyers assigned to mental health courts has increased, and a mental health clinician has been added to her executive team. Price also provided basic tools prosecutors were missing, such as a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Her office quickly moved people declared mentally incompetent to stand trial to the appropriate psychiatric hospitals and initiated investigations into the pattern of deaths and suicides at the county jail.
Price has moved to prosecute two deputies with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office for the in-custody death of Vinetta Martin in April 2021, a move her predecessor, Nancy O’Malley, opted not to make. Martin had been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial but languished at the county jail for months instead of being transported to the Napa State Hospital. Martin told deputies she was going to harm herself and was placed on suicide watch, but deputies failed to check on her every 30 minutes like they were supposed to. Martin ultimately died by suicide.
“A person died in our jail because nobody was paying attention,” Price said. “So we took that very seriously and we are prosecuting that case.”
While the office has bolstered its ranks of victim-survivor-witness advocates providing trauma-informed support, Price said most crime is not reported and many perpetrators are never caught. That leaves many survivors of crime in need of resources, but Price said her office found that “unless there was somebody who was being prosecuted, victims were not being assigned a trauma-informed advocate.”
To bridge this gap, Price’s new program will provide trauma-informed support to those individuals. Advocates from multiple backgrounds who can speak multiple languages have been brought on board to ensure all survivors are getting the culturally appropriate support, Price said. The office is establishing a victim advisory board that Price said will further empower survivors.
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.
Photo caption: Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price speaks to a packed crowd at the Niles Discovery Church in Fremont on Wednesday, Sept. 13. (Sonia Waraich – East Bay Echo)