I wondered what Willie Brown was talking about when he wrote that making sure that D.A. office insider Paul Henderson was “taken care of”  was one of only two details to be worked out, following former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s shocking last-minute appointment of former police chief George Gascón as the next District Attorney And now I think I found out: Henderson, who was former D.A. Kamala Harris’ chief of administration and her preferred pick, announced yesterday that he is dropping out of the D.A.’s race and will serve as Lee's public safety czar.
Henderson starts his new job March 8, meaning 15 months has passed since former U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan resigned from the Mayor's Office of criminal justice—leaving everyone unsure what Henderson's new post entails, and whether it comes with a staff and/or a budget.
Henderson says his new job includes involvement in the Taser debate, the next police chief selection, and assessing how budget cuts impact public safety. And he certainly didn't publicly let on that he was anything but delighted about this latest twist in the ever evolving race to be the next elected district attorney.
“I’m excited about helping our Mayor shape this new position and about what we can accomplish under his leadership to enhance public safety in the City,” Henderson, who is reportedly backing Gascón in the D.A.’s race, told the Guardian.
But Henderson’s move brings us back to the other detail Brown referred to in January, namely, "assessing the odds of Gascón winning the D.A.’s race in November."
Currently, David Onek, a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and served in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Newsom and Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock, are the only remaining contenders. And while little has been heard from Bock since she filed in January, Onek has been doing all he can to stay relevant, including holding house parties, raising money, calling for transparency in the D.A.’s Office around officer-involved shootings, and interviewing criminal justice experts as part of his Criminal Justice conversations podcast project in Berkeley.
Onek’s latest interview is with Michael Romano , co-founder of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which represents folks serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law for minor, non-violent offenses - such as stealing a pair of socks. “Addressing the flaws in the Three Strikes law will protect Californians while also having a positive impact on our state budget.” Onek observed in a campaign email. “According to the California state auditor, non-violent third strikers will cost our state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years - almost $200 million per year.”
Onek also noted that the next few months are crucial for his D.A. campaign, “to build strong partnerships between law enforcement and the community.”
And the challenge for anyone who is not part of the Brown- Newsom machine to remain viable in the D.A.’s race were illustrated afresh yesterday when Gascón convened a 30-minute press conference at the Hall of Justice to announce he is reorganizing his staff to focus on cutting the backlog of homicides and other felony cases--and was replacing Henderson with Cristine DeBerry, who was deputy chief of staff under Mayor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Ed Lee.
Gascón said the reshuffle was a product of six weeks talking to prosecutors, court officials, defense lawyers and others in the criminal justice system. And so far it has led to David Pfeiffer being named as heads of special operations, Sharon Woo as head of operations, Eugene Clendinen as chief of administration, Braden Woods as chief of the criminal division, Lenore Anderson as chief of collaborative courts, Maria Bee as chief of victim services, June Cravett as head of the white collar division, Jim Crisolo as chief of investigations and Jerry Coleman as chief of the Brady, appellate and training division.
Gascón said he doesn’t foresee immediate layoffs in the department, which has a $39 million annual budget. But he warned that if he is required to cut his budget by 10 percent, as Mayor Lee has requested of all departments, he’ll have to lay off the equivalent of 18 prosecutors.
“Hopefully, we’ll be spared that,” he said. “As it is, we have so much unattended business.”
Gascón blamed the crushing deficit in the D.A.’s Office on budget constrictions over many years, as he used a Power Point slide show to illustrate how the department had less funding in 2008 than in 1986 (if numbers are adjusted for inflation).
“It’s why we had problems in the past and why we are doing this reorganization,” he said, claiming that a significant lack of training in the department has caused “a poor performance in court,” and that there is only one paralegal for every 9 attorneys, on average.
Gascón said it took 3-4 months to process most felony cases, and up to 3 1/2 years to bring a murder case to trial, under the office's previous configuration. “By that time, memories have faded, and people are not showing up,” he said.
(D.A. press spokesperson Seth Steward clarified today that Gascón’s claim that “only one out of every 26 misdemeanor cases” was in fact a misstatement, and that the D.A. is working to provide a more accurate analysis.)
Gascón also announced that he is rolling out a makeshift community court system in the next few months, in which alleged perpetrators, victims and three mediating members of the public would work to find a solution, which could be community service.
‘So you can roll the dice and be prosecuted or go to the community court,” he said. “We believe we can take 20 percent of our work load, which is about 1,000 cases, and run it through this system."
He also claimed that instead of spending $1,200 to $1,300 in the court system, these cases would only cost $300, and that the Tenderloin Community Justice Center will stay in place, under the reshuffle.
“My goal as Chief was the make San Francisco the safest and largest city in the United States, and that continues to be the goal,” Gascón concluded.