The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board
June 1, 2022
The following interview was conducted by members of The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board and prosecutor Thien Ho, a candidate for Sacramento District Attorney. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The Sacramento Bee: You have a very compelling personal story. Can you start off telling us about how you came to Sacramento?
Ho: Absolutely. A couple of things about myself, and I do want to sort of step back a little bit before because a lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you running for DA?’ And I want to start off with where I came from, because I think where you come from determines who you are and that gives perspective as to why we do what we do in life. So, I want to go back a little bit. My grandfather on my father’s side, my paternal grandfather, he was a landowner, a business owner in Vietnam. And when my father was an infant in Vietnam and the French began to move away from that area of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese government came in and they wanted to take my grandfather’s property. They wanted to take his businesses, his land, his property, so he grabbed his rifle and fought them off. Two weeks later, my grandfather’s away on business and they came back. They arrested my grandmother and left my infant father in the care of his five-year-old brother. They also arrested another woman, a business owner in town. They marched both women 29 kilometers up into the hills, without a judge, without a jury, without a prosecutor, they convicted both women of treason and executed them by way of a firing squad. So my grandfather, my father and my uncle eventually fled that area of Vietnam to the south. Fast forward years later, and I’ll come back to how we came to this country. My parents live on the eastside of San Jose, where I grew up. I went to Silver Creek High School. About 15 years ago, there was an old man that came up to my dad and said, ‘I know you.’ And my dad says, ‘Who are you?’ And the old man leaned in and said, ‘I’ve watched you your entire life.’ And my dad says, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And the old man says, ‘Remember the night they took your mom? They took my mom, too.’ He was the son of the other business woman that had been taken. And he said, ‘I found one of the people that took our mother. She told me what they did to them, where they buried them in an unmarked grave up on the hillside. I don’t know what grave belongs to your mother or what grave belongs to my mother but my mother is your mother and your mother is mine. And I want to take the remains and rebury them in the village properly. Do I have your permission?’ My dad said yes. And about five years ago, he went back to see his mom again for the first time. Growing up, I didn’t know that story, my father never talked to me about it. It was my mom who told me that story when I was about 10 years old. And so in my family, we’ve experienced injustice, we’ve experienced a system where there is no freedom, where there is no due process, where there is no justice. I have a particular perspective in regards to that. So I was born in Vietnam, and as you know, in ’75, South Vietnam fell to the North. And so when they came in, they took my uncle who worked with the South Vietnamese government and they arrested him — the North did. Without a jury, without a judge, without a prosecutor, they sent him to re-education camps in the jungle where they tortured and beat him for seven years. So in ’76, when I was almost five years old, my parents decided to escape Vietnam, and we escaped on a fishing boat. We ran out of gas, ran out of food and ran out of water. We were just drifting on the ocean near death for about two weeks. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been so hungry that you no longer feel hungry? You’re just lying in your mother’s lap? That was me. And so right before the end, a French merchant ship came by, picked us up, rescued us and took us to a refugee camp in Malaysia. So I spent six months in a refugee camp and then we were sponsored to Stockton, California. We moved into a tiny apartment on Hammer Lane, had nothing but the clothes on our back. We didn’t have a bed to sleep on. So my dad said, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m almost five and we’re walking downstairs to the garbage bin, found a mattress somebody had thrown away, dragged it upstairs, cleaned it up with bleach. That’s what the four of us slept on. And if you are an immigrant and a refugee from another country, you understand how lonely it feels. That you feel like an outsider and nothing brings that more to the front than not being able to understand a word of English. I learned how to speak English from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and going to ESL class for six years. Twenty-two years later I graduated from law school at McGeorge. I grew up on the eastside of San Jose, like I mentioned. My parents initially drove a truck. My mom worked in the cannery in Stockton, coming home smelling like peaches. They started a small business in San Jose, a grocery store that ultimately failed. So we struggled a lot. Worried about where the next meal was going to come from at the end of the month because the money was running out. I come from a community of immigrants and refugees, a community that’s afraid of the police, a community that doesn’t trust the police and at times most definitely are afraid of immigration. But I’ve also been working within the system for the last 20 years. And I feel it’s a duty of service over self. I want to give back, and I want to give back to the community. I want to be able to bridge the gap between our system of justice and really all communities, not just the affluent community, or the gated communities, but the communities that are affected most by crime and injustice. I think I’m uniquely positioned to be that person and to do those things with my life experience, but also my professional experience as well, which I think is really important in this position.
The Sacramento Bee: What drew you to the law and to being a prosecutor?
Ho: Justice Corrigan once said, and this is so true, that it’s not the judge, it’s not the defense attorney, but it’s the prosecutor who is the gatekeeper to our system of justice. That’s really true. We’re the first and last person to ever see a case. When I found out what happened to my grandmother, at the age of 10, and as I started growing up, I started to learn and became interested in the law. When you have experienced injustice, you want to explore and find out what justice does and how you accomplish it. Going to law school at McGeorge, I discovered that I had a particular talent to talk to people, to be able to tell stories and to be able to really advocate for people. I used to go around to all the different law schools and I still do. I was at Berkeley Law School and I’m talking to a group of Asian Law students, trying to convince them to become prosecutors. And I got this one guy in the back, and his arms are all folded and he’s looking all angry and he’s mad. And I said, ‘Hold on, what’s going on? Why are you looking like that? Why are you growling, and not saying a word with your arms folded? What’s your name?’ He didn’t tell me what his name was but he went on a rant and said, ‘Look, why should I come be a prosecutor? Why should I work for the man? Why should I work for the government? Why should I put other minorities in jail? Why should I do that?’ He was practically yelling at me. When someone is angry, anger is a secondary emotion. What I mean by that is the first emotion is hurt. And then after you feel hurt, comes the anger. So I started asking him, ‘Why do you feel that way?’ And he started talking about all the times he thought he wasn’t treated fairly, whether it was by the police, whether it’s by whoever. And so, I said, ‘Look, do you want to make change? Do you want to make meaningful real change? You can do it on the outside or you can do it on the inside. It’s up to you. But here’s the deal. Who do you think speaks for that six-year-old little girl who was molested by a family member and nobody else believes her or wants to protect her? Who do you think speaks up for the undocumented wife who was beaten by her husband and nobody believes her and she’s afraid of calling the police? Who do you think speaks up for the African American woman whose son was killed in a drive-by shooting? Who do you think stands up in the courtroom and tries to get them a measure of justice but who does it in a way that is fair and equal to all?’ The prosecutor. I believe that it is one of the most important positions, and I’m a bit biased, in our society. When I’ve stood up in the courtroom for the last 20 years of being a prosecutor, I say, ‘It’s Thien Ho, on behalf of the people, for the people.’ Not some people, but for the people. The district attorney is the attorney for the people. And so we have to do it in a way where we are the advocate for people who’ve been victims of violent crime, that their voices are heard, but at the same time, do it in a way that is fair and equitable, and has due process across the board.
The Sacramento Bee: Your record is impeccable in the courtroom. A lot of the time, prosecutors are intending to get victory points in a courtroom. I wonder how you balance that dynamic — being victorious but also maybe evolving over time to understand the complexities of the system? How do you kind of approach that dynamic in your work?
Ho: One of the things that I’ve been talking about is safety, not politics. And I think people misunderstand that. What do I mean by safety, not politics? There’s a discussion now that you’re either a reformer or you’re tough on crime. You know what, you can be both and still be an effective prosecutor. When we talk about reform, you have to talk about reasonable reform within the system with subject matter expertise looking at the nuances. So I’ll give you an example of that. We’ll talk about gun violence and gang violence. And I’ll talk about statistics from recent years. You’re talking about approximately 92% of people who are convicted of gang violence. I am the only prosecutor that has actually ever prosecuted a gang case, charged a gang case and tried a gang case. I was a supervisor of the gang unit at the DA’s office before my current position and a supervisor of hate crimes and major narcotics. And here’s a statistic and let’s be real about the statistics: 92% of people who are convicted of gang enhancement and gang crimes come from communities of color. That is the statistic in California. So when you look at that disparity, it’s glaring. But you also have to consider this: On the flip side of that is the vast majority of people who are victims of gang crimes are also from communities of color. That has to be discussed. It’s got to be looked at. And so when somebody does commit a violent crime, I’m going to hold them accountable. It starts with accountability. I’ve done that my entire career. I believe in accountability. I believe in public safety. On one side is the prosecution of the case. When we get that, that comes to us. We don’t go out looking for cases, cases happen. The police bring them to us. People call 911. People bring them to us. We file them on the facts and the law, and we litigate. But on the other side of the spectrum, and here’s why it’s important, is you also have to look at prevention and intervention. One of the people that I’ve worked with is Nicole Clavo. And this is where we get into prevention and intervention as well. Why this is important? Nicole Clavo, as many of you may know, her son JJ was a football player for Grant Union High School. They were on their way to play football, and he got shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. So I first met Nicole because I was assigned that homicide case. Can you imagine a moment when you’re meeting with people under the worst circumstances of their life, and the darkest moment? I met with her, I sat down and she’s crying and I’m holding her hand, and I’m introducing myself as the prosecutor that’s going to be handling her son’s murder case. Over that period of time when I handled the case, I got to really know Nicole. I got to talk to her. She turned trauma and tragedy into triumph because now she is actually the managing director of the city of Sacramento’s violent crime prevention. And what they do is they give out grants and they research and work with community-based organizations to try to have the intervention and prevention on the front desk. Because by the time they get to me as a gang prosecutor and they’ve killed somebody, I don’t have a whole lot of options. We can do a lot more. Whether it’s Nicole — as she knows the work that I’ve done and she’s endorsed me — but I’ve also worked with people like Paris Dye who is founder of Black Child Legacy and Impact Sac where she creates programs and pop-up events. We try to prevent kids from getting together, but then we also have to try to get them out of gangs as well. I know Chief Hahn was talking recently on the news, and I have to be careful because I can’t talk about any pending case, he was talking about a pending case and he said, ‘We’ve got to work on it on both ends.’ And I agree with him completely.
The Sacramento Bee: I think a lot of people in Sacramento know you as the Golden State Killer prosecutor. Is that a title you welcome? Would you say your prosecutorial style translates to the type of DA you want to be?
Ho: I want to tell you a story about that case not many people know. He had killed upwards of 13 people — there were 13 murders, 50 rapes and 120 burglaries. There were some cases we couldn’t charge because the statute of limitation had run. There was a woman, her name was Phyllis, she has identified herself in the news. She was the very first rape victim in Rancho Cordova — the first known rape victim. When he was arrested she came up to me in court and introduced herself and so I got to know her. She’d sit in the front row. And near the end of the case, Phyllis came up to me and said, ‘Hey Thien, I wanted to let you know that I won’t be at court the next time.’ And I said, ‘Why is that Phyllis? You’re always here. I always see you right here in the front row.’ And she said, ‘I have cancer. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer and I have to go and get radiation and chemo.’ If you remember when he pleaded in a Sac State ballroom, — remember, we’re in the middle of COVID now, 2020, and we’re trying to get 200 people into the courtroom and social distance and we couldn’t so we had to have it in the ballroom. If you can imagine it back then; taking the most sensitive, high-profile inmate and transporting him off site into an unsecured location. So we got there and when he was taking his plea, he had to not only plead guilty but he had to admit to the uncharged offense. When it’s time to stand up in court and give the factual basis of those crimes, the victims or survivors would stand up in the ballroom. When it was time for Phyllis’ factual statement, she wasn’t there. So all of the other victims stood up for her. It was a very moving moment. Two months later, at the sentencing, you give your impact statement. And Phyllis was so sick she couldn’t make it, so her sister had to read her statement. Two days later we’re back in the Sac State ballroom where there are 200 people and my job by then is pretty much done. It’s the judge’s job to sentence DeAngelo and I look across the room and who do I see? Phyllis. She’s sitting over there and she has this beautiful smile on her face and for the first time in 40 years she has a sense of closure and justice. About three months later she passed away from cancer. Whenever I think about the case, I don’t think about it being covered by the news, the documentaries, I think about Phyllis. And I think about all of those victims who waited all of those years to get a measure of justice and closure. If we can give them that, then we’ve done our job.
The Sacramento Bee: After the series of high-profile crimes we’ve had here in Sacramento, as well as a general increase in violent crime, do you see the DA’s office as bearing some responsibility for how safe or unsafe the county feels? Or whether you view the office in the more traditional sense — being there to clean up the mess after it happens?
Ho: The way I always approach it is I always bear ultimate responsibility. Whether it’s justified or not, that’s how I feel about myself. The increase in crime is real. There’s an increase everywhere, in all different places, and there’s a lot of reasons for it — whether it’s all the issues that come with COVID, whether it’s issues in regards to the social economic issues we have, whether it’s issues about guns or bail, they all play a factor. And those are all things we have to figure out. I’ve spent my career in a courtroom trying cases. And I’ve spent the last three to four years being in management, so I’ve gotten a different perspective as a result of that. And I’ve also spent time in the community, and I think we need to come together. People feel unsafe right now. What we need to do at the DA’s office and law enforcement is come together to make sure people not only feel safe but are safe where they live. Work together with the city, with the county, with community-based organizations, with the legislature, the Capitol — we all just need to be talking about all of these things together. If we turn the volume down, take out the politics and the dichotomy between one or the other, let’s come up with some solutions. We’re coming at it from both ends, it can’t be just one place. You’ve got to have accountability in prosecution which I’ve done, but you also have to have prevention and intervention as well. All the while, making sure the system is just and fair and that victims of crime are heard. It’s all those things.
The Sacramento Bee: Some people argue that California doesn’t allow district attorneys or prosecutors to charge or pursue crimes. Do you feel like you’re restricted by the law? What do you make of that dynamic?
Ho: I feel that if something is a crime and the facts and the law indicate it, I’m going to charge it. I can do it and I have the discretion to do it. There are some things I’d like to see improvement on. I’d like to see changes in the law that would help us. I’ll give you an example: Hate crimes. As somebody who has felt like an outsider. You see my name and you probably wonder, ‘How do I even pronounce this name?’ It’s different. I’ve been a victim of hate. When you look at hate crimes, legally speaking, they are incredibly difficult to prove. Mind you, I was the supervisor to the hate crimes team. I have lectured, I have taught and I not only have officers but other prosecutors in the region on hate crimes. They’re one of the most difficult crimes to prove — they’re one of the few crimes that require motive. Let’s say you’re an immigrant. Whether you’re Latino or Asian and somebody targets you and they rob you at gunpoint because they know you’re an immigrant. You’re afraid to report the crime because you may be afraid of the police or of getting deported. Here’s the problem: Under the current hate crime law, if you target somebody and you target them because of a perceived weakness or stereotype, that doesn’t make it a hate crime. What makes it a hate crime is an intent that has a biased animosity, a biased motivation. I think it’s unfair to certain members of our community that a person who purposefully selects somebody based upon a perceived stereotype won’t get their day in justice as a hate crime. And I think that’s something that needs to change in terms of the law. And it’s a very nuanced area we’ve encountered because I’ve seen first-hand my elders, Asian immigrants who keep cash, get attacked and get targeted. The same thing with Latino immigrants being robbed because they may be contract workers and carry cash. People rob them but they won’t report it because they’re afraid of getting deported. There are things we can improve with the law to make sure people are protected. Another area is human trafficking, which I believe should be a violent and serious felony. A lot of gangs right now are involved in human trafficking and what they do is they’ll use coercion and violence to human traffick 12- and 13-year-olds. I prosecuted a guy who prostituted a 12-year-old and raped her as well. These are crimes we need to take some focus and attention on and we can improve in terms of the laws.
The Sacramento Bee: At a medium of about $50,000, California has some of the highest bail in the nation. What are your plans for bail reform knowing this most negatively impacts communities of color and immigrants?
Ho: I believe it’s fundamentally unfair that a rich person gets out of jail while a poor person has to stay in jail because they don’t have the money. I believe that’s fundamentally unfair. What I do believe in terms of what we can do on bail is have a system that is focused on public safety and do a risk assessment. Is this person a threat to public safety? Are they a threat to reoffend? Are they out on bail right now and committing another offense? If you’re out on bail and committing another offense, you shouldn’t be out on bail again. We have some people out two or three times. It should be a risk assessment in terms of the threat a person poses to the community. I think if you do that then it’s much more fair than just looking at a person’s pocket book.
The Sacramento Bee: To take it one step further, we had a very real case in regards to the murder of Kate Tibbitts in Land Park. It seems like a failure at multiple points. Do you feel like the risk assessment process that’s in place is enough to prevent this or is there strengthening needed so this doesn’t happen again?
Ho: I do want to be clear that there’s a rule of professional conduct that precludes me from speaking about any specific case publicly that would affect a person’s right to a fair trial. So any comments I make now are not about any specific case, just in general. We need to have a thorough risk assessment system. There is always room for improvement on that. We are also subject under the Humphrey’s Decision — and that’s a decision that came down recently from the California Supreme Court to talk about a person’s ability or whether they have the means to pay and have meaningful bail based upon their economic means of paying or not. The number one thing is a risk assessment and what goes into that risk assessment — because there’s disagreement. My colleagues on the other side of the aisle and in the public defender’s office may not want to consider the fact that a person has a strike, I do want to consider that. There’s debate about that. In my opinion, all of that should come into play. Ultimately, I may disagree about bail with my colleague on the defense bar but it’s up to the judge to make that decision. One of the things we should do is make sure we have the opportunity so the person who is a risk comes before the court, comes before the judge and gets their day in court so both sides — the prosecution and the court — get to argue, but all the information is out there. And the judge gets to consider all of it. At that point, what we have is due process. We can have disagreements but we have to have due process. The number one priority as the district attorney is to ensure public safety in a fair and equal manner.
The Sacramento Bee: There has been a lot of criticism of the current DA for not prosecuting police officers who kill people in the line of duty. There’s one case that stands out, the Joseph Mann case, where an African American man was having a mental health episode and he was gunned down by two Sacramento City police officers in Del Paso Heights. Your office chose not to prosecute the officers. One of the officers was terminated by the police department because the police department internally determined that his life was not in danger and that it was not a justified shooting. That wasn’t your call, that was your boss’ — did you disagree with your office? If you had been the DA, would you have prosecuted the officers that killed Joseph Mann?
Ho: First of all, whether you wear blue jeans or a blue uniform, if you commit a crime, you should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In regards to that case, I was not on the executive team at the time and did not have a role in that particular case. I have not watched the video, I have read descriptions about the video. And mind you, what is sometimes most difficult for law enforcement — on the one hand, you have officers worried about making it home to their family, on the other hand you have citizens who worry about the same thing. You look at that from both perspectives and when you have an individual who has a mental crisis and they’re suffering it becomes a volatile situation. My recollection is that he did have a knife in his hand and that at one point he had pulled out the knife and taken a step toward the officer. I think we have several cases now, and I won’t identify them, where we have individuals with a knife who committed, in a very short period of time, homicides and assaults with a knife. I think it presents a difficult case, when you follow the facts and the law, to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt in that case. Ultimately, any decision that is made by the District Attorney’s Office here, at least back then — I know the law has changed under 1506 — it’s also reviewed in many instances and evaluated by the California Attorney General and by the US Attorney in the Department of Justice as well.
The Sacramento Bee: They tried to run him over with their cruiser as well which is not police policy. He had a knife, they had guns. He was at a distance from them. I did think it was significant that his own department terminated the officer with the reason being they felt like his life was not threatened. And there were other officers on scene who tried to arrest the individual--
The Sacramento Bee: Deescalate. And these two officers just arrived on scene and started shooting. They shot him 17 times. It was obviously a very controversial case. I just wondered how you felt about that?
The Sacramento Bee: You have a very stressful job. You talked to a lot of people who are going through the worst moment of their life. If you were to become DA, you’d be in a position of more public notice. I’m wondering if you’ve taken steps to protect your own mental health — what you’ve done to be able to go to sleep at night and still get up and do the best job you can in the morning?
Ho: Ever since I can remember, I’ve only slept about three hours every night. I don’t sleep much at all. It’s hard for me. I think every person is wired differently. It’s hard for me to turn off that switch in my head. It’s just how I’m wired. I try to get exercise, I probably need to watch what I eat a little bit better. But I try to exercise and go on hikes. I’m blessed with a wonderful family — a wife who, by the way, was also a refugee from Vietnam. Her family escaped the day that Saigon fell and her father had been in the South Vietnamese Army. I have three wonderful kids, all teenagers. I think there’s nothing more stressful than having three teenagers, especially my daughter who’s going to be a lawyer because she argues with me all the time. I tried meditation as well, it’s hard for me to turn it off. I think one of the things we have to be mindful of — for law enforcement and prosecutors — is that we don’t take in all of this negativity and then project that negativity onto others and somehow affect our job. It’s really important not to let that happen. I’m looking into the mental health of our employees, it’s really important. It’s a stressful job, COVID has added onto that. We often feel isolated. So we have to make sure we take care of the mental health of our employees and provide that counseling. And I have to be aware of that for myself as well. I never sleep, so that’s just the way it is.
The Sacramento Bee: Are there any policies you’d consider instituting for your own employees?
Ho: One of the things I’d like to do is I want to require a sabbatical every number of years where people step away, even for a short period of time, from their job so they can decompress. Other things we’ve created and I want to expand upon is a peer program, like a mentorship program in the office for the younger attorneys. But then a mentorship program for the other attorneys in the office as well. I think that’s something that is going to help us work not only in the office but connect to law schools. We need to do mentorship in law school, and that can come into play in recruiting more students from communities of color to become prosecutors. I’m a strong believer in diversity of perspective, diversity of experiences, I think that’s important.
The Sacramento Bee: An opinion piece came out from a writer who said the spiking crime in Sacramento was proof that law and order prosecutors — like Anne Marie Schubert — were not right in the argument or progressive versus law and order. Can you speak to that? There’s a lot of discussion about two DAs in particular, Chesa Boudin and George Gascón, and they’re both facing recall elections right now. At least in the public sphere, Sacramento’s office tends to be lumped into the more conservative prosecutorial offices. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
Ho: I believe you always have to have balance. And when you talk about balance, you talk about the prosecution of violent crimes — rapes, murders, gang violence, child molestation. On the other end of it, you have to balance it out with alternative programs in terms of alternative courts. There’s a lot of perceptions about my office, for various reasons, and there’s a lot of perceptions about crime and what reflects an increase in crime, for various reasons. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not an answer that explains this or that. In terms of our office, I think we do a really good job in terms of prosecuting some of the most violent and serious crimes. But what people don’t realize is that we also have 14 different alternative courts — among the most in the state of other DA’s offices. Mental health court, drug treatment court, DUI court, veterans court. I also believe that I want to expand on that. I want to create a neighborhood court. And a lot of people have not talked about that — I was the first candidate to run for DA who talked about a neighborhood court. There used to be the Boys Ranch. I think we can have some increases in our juvenile system to deal with violent crime and the prevention side of it. You have the prevention side of the prosecution, but you also have the prevention and intervention. Many years ago, what would happen is if you had a juvenile who was committing crimes, first they would start at the Thornton facility and they would go through a program there. If they continued to commit crimes, if they were a juvenile male, they would then be transferred to the Boys Ranch. The Boys Ranch had a series of different programs for them, counseling for them. But what happened was we went through the recession in 2008. The county has spent millions of dollars on the Boys Ranch but then closed it down and laid off a number of probation officers from the juvenile division. Both those facilities closed down. Where does this impact our county? The state closed down the former Correctional Youth Authority, so you have juveniles there who have committed violent crime. You’re being transferred back to the original jurisdiction in the county, but right now you’re sitting in juvenile hall and they have some services. But they’re going to get out — whether it’s in five years, three years, seven years. I don’t want to be dogging anybody, it’s just a matter of funding and resources. They were getting fire camps, they were getting job training. Why can’t we do that here, in Sacramento, with the Boys Ranch and get the job training? Welding, plumbing so when they get out of the system they have a job. They have a skill, they have a future, they have mental health services. They’re not getting that to that extent right now. I think our office does a lot more than people realize. But there’s always room to collaborate with other groups to do more. There are a lot of factors involved in violent crime. People will point to changes in law, the bail issue, early release, social economic reasons. It’s a whole host of reasons.
The Sacramento Bee: One of the biggest issues in our county is homelessness, and enforcement of laws against the homeless requires a depth of nuance to navigate. When we talk about people who could be repeat offenders or could skip bail or be detained longer than necessary at the downtown jail because they can’t afford it. How would you balance enforcement of crimes committed by homeless folks in our community and are there policies or programs you’d pursue to better navigate that instead of continuing that cycle from jail to back on the street?
Ho: About two months ago, I went to San Francisco and I met a gentleman named Tom. We walked through the Tenderloin District. Tom, by the point I met him, was back living at home with his family. But he had been a worker for the city of San Francisco, had foot surgery, got addicted to oxy, then heroin, then fentanyl and within two months lost both his kids and his wife and his home and was living in a doorway in the Tenderloin. His life was spiraling out of control. We were walking around and he was showing us the Tenderloin and the different encampments. On one side were drug dealers and on the other side were people who were clearly strung out on drugs and I’m walking in between them. At one point, Tom takes us to the location where he was sleeping every night and I asked him how it made him feel to look at it. And he said when he initially looked at it he’d feel really sad, but now when he looked at it he had a sense of hope. We talked a lot about homelessness. My philosophy is this: I believe it’s inhumane to allow people to die in the gutter. If we’re walking down the street and we see someone who’s bleeding from their arm — just bleeding out — we would stop and call 911. But if we were walking downtown and we saw someone who was naked, screaming at the top of their lungs, they’re homeless, they’re having a mental breakdown, they’re defecating on themselves, we might walk away and not go over there. We have to stop looking the other way. When we’re talking about homelessness there are three different factors: Obviously housing, but also mental disorders that are oftentimes induced by drug use. Whether a person becomes homeless for economic reasons and then uses drugs, drug addiction and mental health are components that we need to address in our unhoused population. I know Gov. Newsom had recently talked about CARE Court — a criminal diversion program. And there are some gaps in it we need to deal with. He talked about instead of going into the criminal justice system and being prosecuted through the traditional method, a person would be assigned a case manager, a clinical team and a public defender and work with the courts to demand mandatory treatment for a year or two years while ensuring that their constitutional rights are still met but also dealing with those treatments. The issue that we encounter is we are short almost 5,000 psychiatric beds in the state and we are short drug treatment beds. You have to deal with mental health and drug addiction. And if you stabilize them, you have to have the facilities. I’ll tell you about some of the things I’ve been working on, because I’m not just talking about this on the campaign trail. I’ve been working in this area for the last two years in our community outreach and community prosecution team. Some of the things I have been working on and continue working on are talking with Supervisor Serna, talking with the undersheriff, talking with behavioral health and welfare services and mental health in the county. One of the things we’re talking about is people getting released from the county jail. They don’t have any services, and now they’re downtown. What can we do to provide services for people? There’s a program called CalAIM which is a program that won’t take effect until next year but we’re in discussions here in the county about starting CalAIM now. When a person goes into custody, because of the way the law is written, the provider does not get reimbursement by MediCare. So if somebody is in custody or in jail, they’re not getting those services. What we’re going to do is CalAIM will allow them to come in and provide those services. Now remember, the jail is not really a psychiatric institution. But while they’re there, they should be getting treatment and services to deal with mental health and drug addiction. You’re going to get reimbursement for that. Now you get a warm hand-off. What happens is people leave the jail and then have trouble getting to available services. Once they leave the jail, they’re not on their medication and they’re using drugs because of all the stressors that are out there. They’re never going to make it there. So the idea is to get them there and have a warm hand-off and then follow up with them and they have a case manager doing that. That’s the CalAIM program we’re talking about. The other thing I’m working with the public defenders officer on — because as a DA you can’t work in a silo, and that’s what’s going on at times — is at 711 G Street they have wraparound services for mental health diversion. We’re trying to get programs over there and work with them to get services. Can we get somebody from behavioral health and drug and alcohol assessment embedded in the jail so when they’re about to be released — and we’re talking about this with (Sacramento County) Supervisor (Phil) Serna, behavioral health and the undersheriff — can we find a spot for them in the jail to get that done? And what about transferring them to 711? When Gov. Newsom is talking about CARE Court, we have a program in the DA’s Office called the CORE Program. When you have individuals that have five, 10, 15 different offenses — trespassing, assault, battery, theft — and they stack up and it’s over and over again, what we do is, when they’re in custody, and they’re clearly suffering from mental health and drug addiction, we say, ‘You can stay in jail and deal with these cases or, better yet, go into a drug treatment program.’ We had somebody out in Rancho Cordova that we just did that with. My office worked with the sheriff’s office to take that person from the jail and transport them into a treatment program. When they’re done, they don’t do any jail time. But there’s two issues: We need more treatment beds — and that’s coming because I’ve been in discussion with the county about it — and two, once you’ve stabilized somebody, if you put them back out on the street again they’re going to decompensate. We need transitional housing in that process. One of the things I want to do as DA is to hold a homeless summit. Bring together the county and the city and come up with some solutions. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be difficult. But we have to start that conversation. And it won’t happen overnight, but this isn’t something I picked up because I’m running for office, this is something I’ve been working on. I think there’s a lot of frustration in the community. You get people living in the encampments who are victims, but when you are homeless, you are the victim of that circumstance, but so is your family. It has an impact — whether it’s on our waterway, whether it’s on businesses and communities around there. There’s a tremendous amount of anger and frustration. I think at the core people are passionate, but people are really frustrated in the community. We need to get together and talk about it and come up with solutions.
The Sacramento Bee: CalAIM is already in effect in the collaborative courts, isn’t it?
Ho: It is in some of the collaborative court, but what we’re trying to do is before somebody gets into the collaborative courts and they’re still in jail and they make get released — in collaborative you have to qualify to get into it and there are certain standards — what about the person who’s getting arrested and they’re going to be out soon, in five or 10 days before their case gets to the collaborative court? What are we going to do for those people? We need to make sure they don’t fall between the cracks.