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DA: Staff cutbacks hinder justice
Says Ripon is bright spot in crime fight in SJ County
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San Joaquin County District Attorney Jim Willett addresses the Ripon Rotary Club. - photo by GLENN KAHL

RIPON - There were no police calls Saturday night on the Ripon Police graveyard shift.

That got the attention of San Joaquin County District Attorney Jim Willett as he spoke to the Ripon Rotary Club at its Wednesday noon meeting at the Barnwood restaurant.

Willett talked about the extent of crime and punishment throughout the county, but said he was awed to hear Ripon Police Chief Ed Ormonde speak at a recent police chiefs’ meeting about the lack of crime in his community.

Willett outlined the problems he has been having with budget cuts that have been similar to those being shouldered by all the police agencies throughout the county.

“We had 97 attorneys and we are now down to 67,” he said.  “The 55 investigators are now at a level of only 20.” 

He has been able to bring some of his personnel back on a part-time basis without benefits, keeping them at 30 hours or less.  The impact has been terrible, he said, even though violent crimes are down in the county.

Willett explained that the state has taken over the funding of the court system. He said San Joaquin County is currently underfunded because of the “lack of political juices” required to secure more funds.  Willett pointed out that San Francisco County is about the same size but that it enjoys twice the number of judges.

The district attorney said that centralizing operations in Stockton has been an attempt to cut costs as satellite offices in Manteca and in Tracy have been shut down.  A decision will be made at the end of December whether or not to shutter the Lodi courthouse.

He lauded the Lodi operation because the city jail is next door that can hold 50 to 60 inmates unlike Manteca, Tracy, Escalon or Ripon.   When someone is arrested for a petty theft crime, Lodi is the one area within the county where they will not receive just a citation.  Instead they will spend a couple days in jail until the Lodi Superior Court judge can address their issues compared with Stockton and the South County cities where a citation will order them to court in 28 days.

“The perception of crooks in Stockton is that they know there is no immediate jail – it’s like training puppies,” he quipped.

The shutting down of the Tracy court has had quite an impact on the city of Tracy, Willet said.

“Everything now flows into Manteca where one-third of all the county cases are heard.  Major felonies go on to the Stockton Court.”

Prison realignment triggered by federal court orders will ultimately see the early release of 40,000 inmates.  The definition of a felony has also changed today, he said.

Unless it is a serious felony like murder or rape, the offender will not go to state prison. They can expect to spend their sentences in a county jail although the San Joaquin County Jail already at its capacity.

The state realignment of the prison system calls for the county jails to accept the lesser felons back into their campuses.  The sheriff has $80 million set aside for a new jail and the county has another $25 million, Willett said, but the cost of the needed jail guards is estimated at $40 million beyond the cost of the buildings.

“An auto theft suspect with a prior conviction goes to county jail for four years,” he said where the limit to any term in county jail having been for only one year in the past.  Now anyone arrested for auto theft for three prior convictions is now sentenced in county jail for seven years. 

“What we have done is to completely exasperate our county jail,” he said.  “The sheriff is trying to get more funds for a county jail,” Willett added. “Some inmates have been sent off to other states’ (institutions) now having to bring them back.”

He noted that when prisoners are sent out of state to private jails there is often a level of liability for the local county and state systems. 

Volunteer attorneys and law students have been handling misdemeanor cases in the county, according to the district attorney.

Currently a suspect convicted of a DUI with one prior DUI will serve only 15 to 20 days, he said.  When a judge gives someone one year in jail, they will be out in 20 days. 

“There isn’t a solution and we are going to be going through a lot of pain before one is found,” he said.  “There is going to be more pain at the county and at the city levels if we go off the fiscal cliff.  The state thinks it can be done better at the local level.”

The DA said that a group of beret wearing Guardian Angels met with Stockton officials saying they wanted to help with the crime level in downtown Stockton.  But when they were told they couldn’t carry guns, they backed away from their offer, he recalled.

“There is a lot of talk (in Stockton) about vigilante justice in the community,” Willett added.

Rotarian John Mangelos – a Rotarian and Ripon historian – told the DA that in the early ‘20s crime was so bad in the rural Ripon area that there was a lynching tree outside of town. 

“Ripon didn’t have a lot of crime because Riponites took care of the problems,” the Ripon restaurant owner recalled from his history books. 

Willett said his neighbors and friends alike are asking what they can do to help.

The district attorney said they are dealing with gang infusion that comes out of the growth of families.  He remembers serving a recent arrest warrant at a house where a picture of a two-year-old child was found on a wall showing the child having his arms folded and flashing gang signs with the fingers of both hands.

Fears Stockton will be a war zone worse that Oakland’s problems

“The left wing has taken a dialog that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem, but we can arrest our way out of the problem,” he insisted.

“Stockton is going to become an Oakland – a war zone – they’ve got to get police staffing back up,” Willett stressed.

The district attorney further explained that gang members who are arrested for felonies and have a “gang enhancement” charge added to their records will not have the option of going to county jail.  Instead the law sends the suspects, upon conviction, to state prison with years added to their sentence. 

Willett said he was taken aback when signing checks for payment of expenses of witnesses from the San Diego areas. He was puzzled by the locations.  They ended up being court witnesses that were former Stockton Police officers who had lost their jobs in the down economy and became officers in several Southern California communities.