Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager praised the efforts of the Ceres Police Department during her appearance at last week's Ceres City Council meeting where she gave a run-down of her office's responsibilities and share caseload details.
"We have a great partnership with them," Fladager said of CPD. "They are a fabulous police force. They do wonderful work and they're not afraid to come to the office and tell us when they think we've made a mistake and try to get us to change our mind."
Fladager noted that she had not paid a visit to the Ceres council meeting in years to give an overview of her office's function. Her May 12 visit came 22 days before the June 3 election in which she is seeking re-election against challenger Frank Carson.
In Stanislaus County, the district attorney prosecutes felony and misdemeanor crimes and serves as a "law enforcement adviser" and assists in crime reduction.
Prosecution of crimes starts with an investigation by law enforcement with a report forwarded to the Fladager's office for review. Sometimes the office requires further investigation and if the police department cannot do the extra work her office has 12 criminal investigators who delve into cases.
Fladager addressed the tension that can exist between police and her office.
"You'll sometimes hear the police say the D.A.'s office never files charges and I've heard people at the D.A.'s office say I wish we could have better police reports. The reason for it is this - and it's important - law enforcement will make arrests based on probable cause. That means the guy probably did it. That's what's necessary. In order for the district attorney's office to file criminal charges, which can be a life-altering event ... we have to believe that the person truly committed the crime ... and more than that we believe we can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a managed jury of 12 people."
Because of that reason, Flagader said her office has high standards for charging crimes in the Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Because of budget shortfalls, the D.A.'s office cannot employ enough personnel to stay current with prosecutions. Fladager said she is authorized to have 144 total positions but as of December only could pay for 118. Likewise, a total of 54 attorney positions are allocated but only 44 filled. She has only 12 of 18 criminal investigator positions filled.
"We are still operating at fairly low staffing levels," said Fladager.
In 2008, the office appeared in 80,000 court hearings and reviewed another 20,000 cases and filed on 15,000 of them.
In 2012, the office handled fewer cases, largely due to a decrease in law enforcement numbers and a tightening on what cases were filed on. In 2013, the D.A. staff appeared in court for 76,000 cases and 20,000 cases reviewed with filing on nearly 14,000 of them.
In 2009, there were 90 defendants awaiting murder trials. In 2013 that number jumped to 122.
"Keep in mind that we had 39 prosecutors go to court. That's a pretty heavy burden."
Fladager said an exceptional record for Ceres was in 2010 when 103 percent of misdemeanor cases brought to the D.A. were filed. She explained that's because some felony cases were filed as misdemeanors.
Fladager touched on Three Strikes convictions and clarified that convicts are not receiving life sentences for "stealing a piece of pizza."
In 2013 the D.A. filed on five Three Strikes cases from Ceres. Few were sentenced to 25 years or life, mostly because of delays and D.A. discretion. A quarter gram of meth does not rise to the level of going to prison for life, she said. But the Three Strikes law is working in hard-core cases. She cited the 2008 case where her office won a life sentence for a suspect who savagely slammed his girlfriend's head into the sidewalk repeatedly. The same suspect was later linked to a homicide case of a Modesto rape and murder through a DNA sample.
Fladager asserted that Ceres is "pretty safe generally in terms of murder cases." Ceres had no homicides in 2006, three in 2010 and two in 2013.
She called 2013 a "huge year" for Ceres gang cases with 13 cases involving seven defendants.
"We're seeing more violence and it is concerning," said Fladager.
The office is very busy prosecuting gang crimes with 55 known gangs and 2,792 documented gang members in Stanislaus County.
"We believe that the total number is more in the area of 6,000 and that's because when we talk to the gang members they will tell you, well, for every one that you find there's two or three that you don't know about."
Three full-time prosecutors are working nothing but gang cases and two investigators are assigned to the Central Valley Gang Task Force.
The gang injunction has proved positive and lowered the crime rate for south Modesto and west Ceres areas, said Fladager. She said she spoke to a group on Crows Landing Road when a young man came up to her and said his parents have lived there for over two decades and reported "things are so much better. I was relieved and pleased to hear that."
The office works in partnership with the Stanislaus County Gang Impact Task Force, the local Auto Theft Task Force, the Family Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and Drug Enforcement Agency. The district attorney's office also operates the Family Justice Center, which provides multiple services under one roof for crime victims affected by domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, elder abuse or human trafficking. It is located at 1625 I Street in downtown Modesto.
Departments like Ceres which don't have the resources are also aided by the D.A.'s real estate fraud division which includes two full-time investigators, a full-time prosecutor and support person.
To help reduce the numbers of cases being prosecuted, Fladager's office initiated a misdemeanor diversion program about four years ago. It allows some first-time low-level offenders to avoid trial if they agree to counseling and pay restitution to the victim.
"So far the recidivism rate from this program is excellent. I'm very pleased that we're talking about expanding it because it is very effective."
Mayor Chris Vierra said he was surprised to learn how many cases Fladager is responsible for in 10 criminal courts, two juvenile courts and an arraignment court.