“We deserve peace too”, mother frustrated with Stanislaus justice system
It’s hard to believe that we’ve come to a point where some criminals in Stanislaus County are arrested but not held accountable in the courts.
Not because they’re innocent, or because they have slick lawyers. They aren’t being prosecuted because the prosecutors are choosing not to prosecute.
A few weeks ago, District Attorney Birgit Fladager decided her office no longer will file charges for some low-level crimes like drug possession or driving without a valid license. It’s a conscious choice, she says, because she simply doesn’t have enough prosecutors for all the work there is to do, and she would rather focus on the more important stuff.
Word like this gets around fast. It’s a fair bet many offenders are breathing a little easier and becoming a little bolder, knowing that the long arm of the law just got shorter.
That’s an alarming thought. Removing a deterrent — the fear that you just might do the time, if you do the crime — makes our streets and neighborhoods more dangerous, to some degree. We certainly don’t need that.
Fladager has been dealing with this problem nearly since she was first elected in 2006. The economy tanked a couple of years later and she was forced to tighten the fiscal belt, losing people and positions as agencies all over struggled to provide essential services with much less money.
Her staffing shortages were highlighted in previous Modesto Bee reports on a disturbing backlog of murder cases, many waiting years to come to trial. And Fladager’s political opponents, while campaigning last year, harped on the exodus of attorneys from her struggling agency, although she succeeded on Election Day.
Now that economic conditions have more or less stabilized, Fladager is free to fill vacancies. But when her office recruits, few bite, so she’s having trouble filling nine openings on a staff of 50 prosecutors. She has lost some to other counties that simply pay more. Our neighbor to the north — San Joaquin County, comparable in many ways — pays starting deputy district attorneys more than $74,000 a year, compared to $68,000 here, and an experienced prosecutor can expect $159,000 there, compared to a maximum of $141,000 here.
Fladager says she and county administrators are coming up with a plan to attract and retain prosecutors. Meanwhile, a somewhat lightened load doesn’t mean prosecutors are going home early now, she said. “This is not something we wanted to do at all. We just needed to take some steps to get immediate relief.” This is temporary, she says, lasting maybe a few months.
Law enforcement agencies didn’t want this either.
“We have a lot of issues in our community because of drug use and abuse,” Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said. “I don’t want people in the city of Modesto thinking it’s a free-for-all and they can do whatever they want. That’s the wrong message.”
He and Stanislaus Sheriff Jeff Dirkse are telling their officers to continue making arrests, even if it goes no further.
“Whether (Fladager) files or doesn’t file charges won’t change how we do our job,” Dirkse said.
It seems silly, though, to go through the motions. Who loads the washer, but doesn’t push the “on” button? Or drives to the bowling alley, but doesn’t get out of the car?
And it certainly seems less safe.