Inside the city prosecutor’s office
Sonoma’s crime scene is, not surprisingly, relatively modest. Police Chief Bret Sackett said the “vast majority” of incidents boil down to misdemeanor offenses. But in the late 1980s, the people of Sonoma felt that local crimes, while petty, weren’t being handled effectively by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, which was bogged down prosecuting all the criminal cases in the county.
In 1985, former Sonoma Police Chief Bill Rettle tracked all of the roughly 300 cases Sonoma sent to the District Attorney’s Office that year. “There was a very, very small conviction rate, almost zero. If we were going to get these cases prosecuted, we were going to have to do it ourselves,” said Bob Smith, the current and original city prosecutor for Sonoma.
In 1987, the Sonoma City Council voted to create a City Prosecutor’s Office, charged with handling all of the misdemeanor crimes in the city. Smith was selected for the position that same year, although he admits that, today, his co-counsel Cynthia Ashmore handles the bulk of the work in court.
“She’s in court at least three days a week prosecuting. It’s great having that kind of in-house counsel,” said Sackett. “We rely on them heavily.”
Their office also runs Sonoma Valley Youth and Family Services, which oversees all juvenile offenses. “We’re basically the last functioning juvenile diversion program in the county,” Smith said, explaining that most underage offenders in other cities are sent to Juvenile Hall.
Sonoma is the only town in Sonoma County that has its own prosecutor’s office, a feature that was historically more commonplace in smaller cities for managing smaller issues such as municipal code enforcement. Today, larger cities such as San Francisco keep an active prosecutor’s office for misdemeanor offenses, but Smith said he thinks Sonoma is the only “small town” to maintain such an office.
Financed by the City of Sonoma, the service costs $59,100 annually, down from $63,600 once Smith and Ashmore agreed to take a 7 percent pay cut along with other city staff to help balance the city’s budget after it lost funding from the state redevelopment agency.
With that money, the office prosecuted 413 offenders during 1,108 court appearances in the 2011-12 fiscal year, including 103 juvenile crimes and 310 adult lawbreakers.
“Our hourly rate is so low we’d be better off opening an In & Out Burger, but it’s good for the city,” Smith said, adding that the bulk of cases are “quality of life” issues “that are just impossible to get anyone to pay attention to.”
From childish acts of vandalism to neighbors who consistently leave their garbage askew, the office is adept at handling those little things that drive people crazy. “If your neighbor has a dog that barks all night, it may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re not ever sleeping, that starts to wear on you,” Smith said.
Ashmore added, “If you’re able to be heard, that means something. We’re the ones who can listen and respond.”
While the office receives a heavy caseload, up to 50 incidents a month at times, Smith said that the Sonoma Police Department typically only sends in cases in which there is enough evidence to prosecute – made evident by the office’s conviction rate of nearly 100 percent. Not that his office always chooses to take the cases to court – sometimes community service or punitive fines are sufficient solutions. He recalled one case in which a pregnant woman hit her husband because he ate the last egg, sparking a heated fight.
“That’s not a case you prosecute,” Smith said with a chuckle, explaining that, when appropriate, his office looks to mediate a situation and connects parties with the services to help resolve their issues.
“It has a restorative justice factor that I’ve found really useful for the town,” observed Mayor Ken Brown, who said he has consistently voted to continue funding the office. “I’ve always thought that it’s money well spent, and it’s a level of service we can afford to support.”
The office has proved especially beneficial in youth cases, in which counselors work closely with the families to address the problems that contributed to the criminal behavior.
“The whole idea is stopping any further criminal behavior,” Ashmore said. “It seems to work. About 98 percent of the kids I deal with I don’t see again.”
District Attorney Jill Ravitch sent a letter of commendation to the Sonoma City Council last spring in praise of the city Prosecutor’s Office for its work to manage neighborhood problems. The office also earned the California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence for innovative solutions in government.
“We’re there to make sure there’s accountability in Sonoma,” Smith said.