A couple weeks ago, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen held a “Bend the Arc” press conference where he announced policy reforms in response to the societal uprising after the killing of George Floyd.
Rosen instituted some tangible, discreet measures that—although long overdue—were welcome, such as ending the pursuit of the death penalty and requiring his line lawyers to attend jail and prison tours. But there were also glaring omissions of substantial, revolutionary reforms to meaningfully address systemic racism in Santa Clara County.
Notably, Rosen refused to stop prosecuting children as adults, to cease the inhumane pursuit and imposition of LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentences or to end racist felony gang enhancements.
More than just these omissions, Rosen’s words illustrated fundamental flaws, misguided rhetoric and ugly dogma that expose his outlined reforms as surface level and perhaps disingenuous. Rosen failed to be honest, to tell the truth.
Acclaimed public interest lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently said the following: “I think it’s really important that people understand that if you’re genuinely engaged and recovering from human rights abuses, you have to commit to truth-telling first. You can’t jump to reconciliation. You can’t jump to reparation or restoration until you tell the truth. Until you know the nature of the injuries, you can’t actually speak to the kind of remedies that are going to be necessary.“
Rosen failed to tell the truth about his office’s significant, undeniable role in perpetuating systemic racism in this country and in Santa Clara County.
He never uttered a word about the traumas inflicted on our community through decades of systemic racist practices and policies like gang enhancements and Three Strikes. He spoke of the overrepresentation of Latinos and African-Americans and the disparate impact upon them in the Santa Clara County criminal legal system, but never once affirmatively, explicitly or honestly claimed responsibility for those systemic inequities.
Rosen didn’t apologize or offer any contrition—it was as if the systemic racism and mass incarceration of people of color in this county were caused by someone else.
Rosen failed to tell the truth about his office’s co-dependent, entangled, un-objective relationship with police departments such as the SJPD. He did not once affirmatively acknowledge his office’s complicity in the pervasive infliction of police violence and terror upon communities of color in Santa Clara County.
Rosen failed to tell the truth about why he and his office won’t try to kill people anymore as they have tried multiple times during his tenure. He claimed at his press conference that he was no longer seeking to execute people because of the killing of George Floyd and because of his visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
But he wasn’t telling the truth. His office doggedly and stubbornly sought to kill Manuel Lopez at a murder trial just a few months ago after the killing of George Floyd and well after his visit to the Montgomery memorial. Thankfully, despite Rosen and his office’s effort to murder a very likely factually innocent Mr. Lopez, a jury found Mr. Lopez not guilty of all charges and he is now a free man.
Rosen cannot bend the arc toward justice until he can tell the truth.
Rosen also failed to say “Black Lives Matter.” He failed to truly and genuinely recognize the humanity of people who have caused harm.
In fact, at his press conference, Rosen affirmatively used dehumanizing, divisive words to describe those ensnared in the criminal legal system, reducing these complex, layered human beings to “gangsters who have preyed on our community,” “crooks,” “inmates,” and “criminal defendants.”
This inhumanity by Rosen isn’t new.
On the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s official website, Rosen boasts of his office as “successfully prosecuting murderers, rapists, gangsters, child molesters, polluters and fraudsters.” He cannot help but define our fellow human beings by their worst moments and cannot help but to call them condescending names. He and his office simply do not see those who have done harm as fully human.
This inhumanity by Rosen isn’t isolated to him.
One of Rosen’s hires in 2015, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Rubin, seemingly compared people in California jails and prisons, who we know to be disproportionately black and brown, to monkeys at a zoo. Not only did Rosen hire Mr. Rubin, his office published and promoted his offensive, gross analogy in a newsletter [that has since been taken offline]. In that same set of biographies, prosecutors are lauded for having secured life sentences where our fellow human beings are destined to die in cages.
This type of dehumanizing rhetoric and behavior is unsurprising from a DA’s office led by a man whose bio on his personal campaign website touts his “history of putting bad people behind bars made a strong transition into his administration” and boasts about how “under his leadership, the DA’s Office has convicted dozens of gangsters …”
Calling human beings inflammatory names and reducing them to “bad people” and “gangsters” doesn’t counter systemic racism—it perpetuates it.
It also forms the backbone of our mass incarceration epidemic that is predominantly fueled by black and brown people.
The persistent, pervasive, promoted office culture of dehumanizing and demonizing those accused and convicted of crimes—people who are largely black and brown—doesn’t promote public safety. This harsh judgment of people ignores root causes of crime, prevents collaboration to resolve and remedy those underlying issues and runs counter to any notion of redemption and rehabilitation, leaving us all less safe and less healthy.
Mr. Rosen cannot bend the arc toward justice until he says Black Lives Matter. He cannot bend the arc until he stops the dehumanization and name-calling of people who are accused and convicted of crimes. He cannot bend the arc until he and his office truly honor and recognize the lives and humanity of all our fellow human beings.