09/11/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Courage to Call It

The criminal justice system is failing us. In an era of decreased crime, we must have the courage to call it like it is and enact criminal justice reforms that assist victims, prioritize public safety and provide opportunities for offenders to redeem themselves.

As a law enforcement official with three decades of experience, I am deeply committed to public safety. I came from Cuba to a poor working class neighborhood in South L.A. County and worked my way up the ranks at the Los Angeles Police Department from beat officer to Assistant Chief. As the Assistant Chief running LAPD's operations under Chief Bratton, I helped lead the LAPD achieve some of the most substantial crime drops in L.A.'s history. As Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona, I reduced serious crime by 30 percent without a concomitant rise in the jail population. As Chief of Police in San Francisco, we lowered murder rates to the lowest they had been in 50 years also without dramatically increasing the number of inmates.

I now serve as San Francisco's District Attorney. As the first former Police Chief to be elected District Attorney, I have unique insight into our criminal justice system. It is a fallacy to believe that people can only be a victim advocate or a justice reform advocate. Embracing and protecting victims and demanding the justice system be honest, fair and proportional in its response to crime are the bedrocks of true public safety.

Toward this goal, I am pushing for three sound criminal justice reforms that focus on public safety rather than just punishing criminals -- supporting prison realignment, reforming the three strikes law, and replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.

Making California's prison realignment experiment a success could have the greatest impact on justice reform in decades. It allows each county to decide how to handle non-violent non-serious offenders rather than handing them over to the state prisons. In San Francisco, we are embracing this opportunity by identifying community based solutions for many of these low-level offenders. Rather than stigmatize, traumatize and marginalize these individuals, we are trying to address their needs with the goal of finally stopping the revolving door in and out of prison that is often fueled by addiction and mental illness.

We have hired an Alternative Sentencing Planner to help guide our attorneys' sentencing decisions and are forming the first county level Sentencing Commission in country to evaluate our sentencing practices. This more surgical application of our most scarce and expensive resource -- jail -- has allowed us the space in our system to properly deal with the violent and serious offenders.

Similarly, our current three strikes law has resulted in thousands of Californians serving life sentences for non-violent crimes such as minor possession of drugs. My vision for our criminal justice system is one where we apply enough social control and opportunity to change someone's behavior, and no more. Justice both requires and limits punishment.

Proposition 36, a November ballot measure to reform Three Strikes will maintain the integrity of the law -- to protect society from violent repeat offenders -- without distorting its intent. Truly dangerous criminals will receive no benefit whatsoever from the Reform Act. Any defendant who has ever been convicted of a crime such as rape, murder or child molestation will receive a life sentence regardless of what their third strike crime is.

Proposition 34, also on the November ballot, would commute all death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. In my 30 years in law enforcement, the existence or absence of the death penalty has had no impact on general public safety. Strengthening families and neighborhoods, punishing criminals swiftly and surely, and thoughtful gun laws are more effective in deterring crime than remote threats of the death penalty. A sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a safe and effective solution for dealing with the most dangerous offenders. We are better off using the precious resources and funds to bring more killers and rapists to justice.

The failing of our criminal justice system is not an economic or crime problem; it is a political problem. If my peers in elected office and I are honest with Californians, we will tell them that jails and prisons are not the answer to every crime or every criminal. We will say it is okay, even safe, to give people an opportunity to reform themselves.

We need drastic reform if we hope to live up to our ideals as a nation. Justice, fairness, equality and opportunity must continue to inform our future. We need to forge a path of healing over punishment, integration over marginalization, hope over fear and life over death.

As law enforcement leaders we must have the courage to call it -- we are not winning by locking everyone up.