Jeff Reisig: From the farm to the courtroom

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who was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal murder of Winters resident Leslie Pinkston in 2013. “He walked up and essentially executed her in her car,” Reisig said. “It was a shocking crime. It shocked the community. It shocked all of us. She was a beautiful, sweet mother and beloved member of the community, and he was a guy who shouldn’t have been out of jail.” But he was, and the fact that he shouldn’t have been stayed with Reisig throughout the investigation. “From the moment the crime occurred, my office actually dispatched investigators to Winters,” Reisig said, adding that he was assisted by members of the Winters Police Department, the city manager and other city and county officials. “What was most-profound about what happened in Winters was what happened, who it happened to and all the circumstances that led up to it. You just wish — why didn’t something happen earlier that got this guy locked up?” Eventually, he was locked up — Reisig was successful in securing a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gardner attempted to appeal his conviction, but an appellate court ruled against him, and the state’s Supreme Court declined to take up his case, ruling out for now any chance that Gardner will re-enter society. But it took Pinkston’s death to make that happen. The nuances of the case weighed heavily on Reisig. “One of the things people don’t totally understand is we’re DAs and we’re doing our job presenting the evidence in court and trying to be professional at all times,” Reisig said. “But you can’t help but be impacted by the tragedy and the emotion and the loss.” Still, Reisig said their role is to stick to the facts and follow the law. He acknowledges that in other cases, sometimes victims come forward who don’t get their day in court because there isn’t enough evidence against the alleged perpetrator to bring charges or see through a case. “Our job isn’t to pursue cases at all costs to make victims happy,” Reisig said. “The DA is the fact-finder. We only are interested in the truth. Protecting victims as part of that mission comes with the commitment of pursuing the truth. There have ben cases where we’ve looked at the facts and we’ve decided there isn’t enough here. We have a victim here, but we just don’t think we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.” And he feels he’s done a pretty good job in that role as the county’s top prosecutor. When asked to talk about one case that he regrets bringing, he tapped on the wooden conference table and said he couldn’t think of one that, in retrospect, was handled unjustly. At the time, anyway. “I’ve evolved as prosecutor over the last 22 years, and I think practices and policies have changed as more information has become available more science has come up,” Reisig admits. “I guess I would say if I knew back then what I know now on certain types of issues, I might have handled the resolution a little different.” That’s true particularly with respect to drug cases, which Reisig said he now understands could be a symptom of much larger issues like addiction or other mental health problems. “When you look at what’s gone on in criminal justice over the last decade, there has been an evolution on how we handle issues because of the availability of science and looking at what really is driving certain criminal behavior, especially as it relates to mental illness and addiction,” he said. If that science had been available then, “maybe I would have been looking a little more at mental health treatment for certain offenders 10 years ago than I did.” To some degree, it’s too late for the people Reisig helped put away then. What’s done is done, and those people have to live with the consequences of their sentences, even if they may appear heavy-handed by today’s standards. But Reisig doesn’t operate by that playbook anymore. Instead, under his direction, Yolo County has moved more toward attempting to rehabilitate drug offenders through diversion programs such as mental health court in lieu of locking people up. But some initiatives, such as the voter-approved Proposition 47 that lessened the offenses of some drug crimes, have made getting people the help they need harder, Reisig says. “For a long time, and even as recently as five, six, seven years ago, the approach for the criminal justice system was to lock them all up,” Reisig said. “You’re a drug addict? You’re going to prison or you’re going to jail.” That led to prison overcrowding, which has become a contentious and highly-political issue in recent years. Prop 47 was supposed to fix what police and lawmakers couldn’t: Fix prison overcrowding and get people the help they need by lessening the severity of certain drug offenses. But however well-intentioned Prop 47 was, Reisig notes that it had unforeseen consequences that have actually made getting people the help they need harder. By making drug offenses less serious, Reisig said people are less prone to apprehension, which means they aren’t put through the county’s mental health treatment courts and lose incentives for getting help. Worse, some drug offenders are going on to commit other crimes — Reisig noted a surge in property crime in Winters shortly after Prop 47 passed, something other law enforcement officials who have spoken with the Express in recent weeks also expressed concern about. “We shouldn’t just be locking up mentally-ill people and saying the problem’s solved,” Reisig said. “But the problem with those initiatives was, they were well-intentioned but not practically sound. And having a plan to now deal with those people who are now on the streets, addicts who are not going to voluntarily go into treatment, what do we do? That’s the situation that we’re dealing with, and it’s a challenge everywhere.” In other words, Reisig saw what voters didn’t see, and that’s why he opposed Prop 47. He also opposed Proposition 64, a voter initiative that ultimately legalized recreational marijuana at the state level, for much of the same reason. Some might look at his opposition to Prop 64 as Reisig being a member of a clan that takes a hard line against recreational drug use. As far as marijuana goes, that isn’t the case. “For adults, I’m totally fine with cannabis being legal…if an adult wants to use marijuana, go for it,” Reisig said. “I’ve never used it, because it’s not something I’ve wanted to do, but…I’ve never had a judgment about those who did, other than when it was illegal.” In fact, since Prop 64 became the law, Reisig has worked with the public defender’s office to help clear the records of those who were previously convicted of certain marijuana-related offenses. “All they have to do is give us a call, call the public defender, we’ll process the paperwork for them,” Reisig said. “They don’t even have to come to court. The conviction is gone.” His opposition to Prop 64 centered around what he called inadequate measures to prevent the substance from falling into the hands of children. “I still have a deep concern with what’s going on,” he said. “We’ve had many cases where there were unlicensed, unregulated growth in and around Winters…you still can’t cultivate it in Yolo County unless it’s for medicinal purposes and then there’s all these other factors that have to be established. It’s just kind of a Wild West out there — there’s a lot of marijuana grown around the county that isn’t compliant with that. A lot of it is being diverted to black market sources that’s ending up in the hands of kids. That’s my issue. That’s the only issue.” And it’s an issue that frustrates him to the point where you begin to realize that Reisig and people in his position elsewhere are constrained in their power and abilities by the letter of the law — which, depending on whom you ask, might work against society rather than for it. Some of this can be remedied through prosecutorial discretion, which Reisig admits he’s tapped into to a small degree. But Reisig says he doesn’t see his discretion as a fix-all when he feels the laws come up short. “I’m not a D.A. who believes in ignoring the law,” Reisig says. “I know some of the folks who were running with D.A., not just here but in other parts of the country, believe that the D.A. should ignore parts of the laws that they think are wrong. That’s not how I view my job. My job is to enforce the law that is on the books, and use good discretion…I’ll let the folks in Sacramento decide what’s the law, and then I’ll deal with it.”  ]]>

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