CONCORD, Calif., April 24, 2009 -- Facing crippling budget cuts, a California district attorney says his hands are tied. Forced to lay off 20 percent of his staff, Contra Costa County District Attorney Bob Kochly said his department will stop prosecuting many misdemeanor crimes.
"This is a no-win situation for me, for the communities in this country -- it's a terrible thing to have to do," he said.
The layoffs mean that those carrying less than a gram of cocaine or half a gram of heroin won't be charged for drug possession. And criminals who commit petty theft, embezzlement, burglary, non-DUI traffic offenses or trespassing, among other crimes, could face little or no consequences.
"The last thing I want to do is say someone could commit a particular kind of crime -- even if it's only a misdemeanor -- and they can get away with it in my county," said Kochly. "That just is absolutely devastating to me."
Some of Kochly's staffers say the shift in policy undermines the spirit of the law.
"It sends a terrible message to criminals. I don't have any doubt that we are going to see an influx of criminals in this county coming from across the border," warned Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove. "We're a tinderbox and the match has been lit, and we're about to go up."
Grove said it also sends a "horrible signal" to taxpayers about how the government allocates funds.
Contra Costa County residents are bracing themselves for the worst. Many fear for the safety of their family and homes, if criminals face no consequences in their neighborhoods.
"I know they think that they're trying to save money, but there are other places that they can make cuts because we need to be safe in our town," said resident Kara Braxton. "We need to be safe in our city."
Business owners such as longtime jeweler Ernest Ricco worry that the county's more lenient policies could jeopardize their livelihoods.
"The law is the law. If the law gets broken, you should be prosecuted. There should be some teeth," said Ricco. "There should be some consequences for the lawbreaker. If no one is going to do anything about it, why not break the law if you can get away with it?"
Police say that they will still remain on patrol in communities and make arrests, so residents should rest assured.
DA Assures Criminals Won't Have 'Free Rein'
"Law enforcement will continue to enforce law violations whether they're felony or misdemeanors. That won't change. Those that think perhaps they're going to be off the hook, so to speak, on a violation are just wrong," said David Livingston, chief of police in Concord, Calif.
Instead, prosecutors will determine whether or not the county can afford to take the criminal to court.
"I don't want to put out the message to the wrong element that they have free rein here in our county," Kochly said.
Still, the decision potentially puts the police and prosecutors at odds. In the meantime, Livingston says the police will remain vigilant.
"Whether the DA ultimately charges that case or not is up to the DA," Livingston said. "The police will still take action."
While Contra Costa County may be the first to enact such drastic measures, other parts of the country are also pursuing misdemeanor crimes less aggressively. But the county's severe attempt to close a $1.8 million deficit is a sign of the times that no one wanted to see.
"No one's happy… This is in no way shape or form something that I ever wanted to have to do as a career prosecutor," Kochly said.