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Balancing rehabilitation and punishment: Next Stanislaus DA is up for the challenge

Modesto Bee - 6/29/2022

Jun. 29—Jeff Laugero said becoming the Stanislaus County district attorney never really was on his radar.

But when his boss announced last year that she would retire and a "broad spectrum of people" suggested he put his hat in the ring, prosecutor Laugero thought it would be a good way to continue his 33-year career in public service.

"I thought I could utilize the relationships that I've built and the skills that I have developed to try to help navigate through all the changes we are seeing in criminal law and continue to try to make the community safer ... focus on quality-of-life issues and make sure that we don't forget about the victims out there," Laugero said during a recent interview with The Bee.

He ran unopposed during the June primary — the first DA election without an incumbent candidate in 16 years — and will be sworn into office in January. Incumbent Birgit Fladager announced last year that she would retire. She didn't publicly explain her reasons for retirement other than saying "the time was appropriate."

"We are very pleased that Mr. Laugero stepped forward to run for Stanislaus County district attorney," said County Chief Executive Officer Jody Hayes. "He has an excellent reputation among his colleagues in our criminal justice system and has already demonstrated his ability to work with partner agencies to improve the efficiency and outcomes of the overall system. "

Laugero, an Escalon native, has worked as a prosecutor in Stanislaus County and previously worked as a police officer in Modesto, Santa Clara County and Pleasanton.

As a deputy district attorney, he worked as a rural-crimes prosecutor, major narcotic vendor prosecutor and gang and homicide prosecutor. He was promoted to chief deputy district attorney in 2019 and assistant district attorney in 2021.

Laugero served on the Escalon City Council for 13 years before stepping down in December and moving to Modesto to run for district attorney. The 55-year-old has been married 29 years, and he and his wife have an adult daughter.

'Jeff is willing to listen'

Laugero said he thinks the people he has been in court with would describe him as fair and reasonable.

Stanislaus County Public Defender Jennifer Jennison agrees. She said Laugero's understanding of humanity and willingness to listen set him apart and he brings a perspective she has not seen from the DA's Office since she started her career almost 25 years ago.

"Jeff has compassion and seems to understand that people have things going on that tend to put them in the system," Jennison said. "He is willing to have the conversation about how they got to be in that place. One of our roles as public defenders is to tell that story; Jeff is willing to listen to it."

Traditionally, people have viewed the district attorney as the person who wants to lock up people, she said, and the public defender as the person who wants to get them off. Instead, she said the offices should share a common goal of reducing recidivism and making the community a better, healthier place.

Already in his role as assistant district attorney, Laugero has collaborated with Jennison on a program she said is designed to both reduce recidivism and the case backlog exacerbated by months of COVID-19 restrictions.

The deferred sentencing program, which began in January, allows defendants charged with many misdemeanor crimes to plead to the charge but defer their sentencing. During that time, they participate in services, agreed upon by the prosecutor and the public defender, to address the underlying issues associated with their offenses. Those services can include drug and alcohol addiction treatment, mental health counseling, life skills classes and more. If they complete the programs without any new law violations, their cases are dismissed.

New state law already required that the court consider diversion for many misdemeanor crimes, but this is a way to make sure the needs of both sides are met.

The program connects people with proven local providers that can help them succeed, and the plea prior to the services holds them accountable. They know if they don't complete the counseling or continue to break the law, they will be sentenced and probably go to jail, Laugero said.

Nearly 300 defendants have participated in deferred sentencing since the program started. Jennison said it is too soon to gauge its success because the duration of the counseling is six to nine months.

"There is a lot of concern among all of the justice partners in our community related to the backlog of cases in our courts system, which has been a priority for District Attorney Fladager as well," CEO Hayes said. "Our county leadership feels very confident in this transition of leadership and the level of partnership we see occurring in the courts system over this last year."

Laugero said the pendulum of criminal law seems to swing fairly extremely between punishment and rehabilitation and many recent law changes have focused heavily on giving second chances to offenders. Those include laws that promote rehabilitation before jail, laws restricting incarceration time for juvenile or youthful offenders, as well as laws that dictate when someone can be charged with murder if a participant but not the actual killer and that greatly limit when a person's sentence can be increased based on prior offenses.

Laugero thinks rehabilitation is an important component of criminal law but so are deterrents and punishment, especially for serious offenses.

He said some of the biggest criminal issues in Stanislaus County are quality-of-life issues like theft, the prevalence of gangs and homicides, of which there are nearly 100 open cases.

"We don't write the laws, we just have to adapt to them and figure out (how to) utilize the law to provide a safe environment to the community," Laugero said. "I think that's everyone's bottom line."

Learning from mistakes

Beyond the caseload, Laugero said he is focused on improving transparency and public trust of the District Attorney's Office and addressing the staffing shortage that has plagued the office for at least five years.

The office has been criticized for some of the cases it's chosen not to prosecute, as well as the cases it has, most famously the murder case against Frank Carson that marked the second longest trial in California history. Critics said the case was based on mostly circumstantial evidence and driven by a vendetta against the late defense attorney.

Laugero said he wasn't part of the management team that decided whether to prosecute Carson.

"However, I saw the outcome," he said. "I certainly think that it did damage public trust with certain individuals or groups. The takeaway, from my position, is how do we not repeat whatever mistakes were made?"

He said lessons can be learned from any case, especially contentious cases and cases that end in an acquittal.

And while he can speak to many successful cases, ones in which victims were pleased with the process and outcome, there are also negative narratives about the office "and those narratives can be based on people's experiences. We have to be willing to have tough conversations to get to a place of understanding."

Laugero said he has been attending police reform committees like Project Resolve and Forward Together to better understand community perceptions about the legal system, including the role of the DA's Office.

"We need to do a better job of getting the word out that (prosecutors) are attorneys with the highest ethical obligation," he said. "We have to make sure we can prove every element of a case beyond a reasonable doubt and ... we take our obligation seriously."

Laugero said that message also applies to recruitment, because there are fewer people coming out of law school interested in becoming prosecutors.

The DA's office has consistently been down six to 10 attorney positions over the past several years and is currently short 10 attorneys.

Fladager has attributed turnover in her office to the abundance of higher-paying positions in the nearby Bay Area, Sacramento and even neighboring San Joaquin County.

John R. Mayne, a former prosecutor and now judge who ran against Fladager during the last election in 2018, argued it had more to do with mismanagement within the office that destroyed morale.

Laugero believes it is mostly driven by the abundance of better-paying attorney jobs nearby. "Everyone is drawing people from this finite group," he said.

But he also sees, "Sometimes there are self-inflicted issues where people will leave an office for personal reasons. And then things kind of get reorganized or the office is functioning well and people are satisfied and they are not necessarily looking to go some (other) place."

Laugero will be sworn in on January 2..

This story was originally published June 29, 202210:53 AM.


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