Thank you Chairman Causer for holding this very important hearing. I am Dave Sunday, the District Attorney in York County.
As prosecutors, we strive to do the right thing for the right reason. This may mean that a defendant receives drug and alcohol or mental health treatment. Conversely, the right thing under the circumstances may be to zealously advocate for a conviction resulting in a mandatory sentence of life in prison, for the safety of our community.
Our daily responsibilities, of course, include ensuring the guilty are held accountable, the innocent are protected from unwarranted harm, and the rights of all participants – including crime victims – are honored.
As we sit here today in the capitol of our great Commonwealth to discuss these very important issues, our fellow citizens are divided in their support of those that have sworn to protect and serve.
As a District Attorney, I am deeply saddened and concerned by many individual’s loss of confidence and trust in our criminal justice system, placed in the forefront recently by the senseless killing of George Floyd.
This erosion is occurring at a time when, ironically, we have generally seen the most productive changes in improving the criminal justice system, with prosecutors, law enforcement, and the courts embracing diversion and rehabilitation as keys to breaking the cycles of crime, preserving public safety, and ensuring justice for all.
But when there is a lack of trust between the criminal justice partners and the communities we serve; especially from our minority, underrepresented, and vulnerable populations; initiatives in and of themselves are not enough.
Trust must be restored, and in criminal justice, that process begins with me, the District Attorney, and my office.
In that vein, shortly after the killing of George Floyd, I announced the codification of my preexisting commitment to diversity and inclusion within my office. Standing with members of York County communities, I announced that my office “will neither make nor tolerate any actions, procedures, or decisions based upon invidious discrimination, as such measures are contrary to any notion of justice.” I told a crowd that gathered outside of my office that without trust, nothing else matters.
It is my commitment that the York County District Attorney’s Office shall serve as a leader in establishing justice system innovations that promote public safety and community well-being. This office will accomplish these measures through collaboration and developing partnerships with the diverse York County community, which include neighborhood leaders and stakeholders, law enforcement, business and professional institutions, service providers, faith-based entities, and other governmental agencies and elected officials.
Additionally, we cannot forget that our police put their lives on the line every day. Dedicated law enforcement officers confront danger for our protection on a daily basis. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to these brave men and women.
Understanding the challenges police face does not minimize the importance of addressing many of the issues before us. Improving the fairness and integrity of our justice system is not mutually exclusive with supporting law enforcement and recognizing the inherent dangers that our officers face every day. In fact, based on my experience, a properly trained and well-funded police force is critical to meaningful criminal justice reform.
Let us be clear, the call to simply defund the police, cut police budgets, divert or divest funds, or anything of the like, is a false and dangerous narrative. In fact, eliminating police funding would disproportionately endanger the very vulnerable populations that advocates of this flawed premise seek to aid. No service given to any member of our community can be effective if it cannot be delivered safely. Only one public entity guarantees this basic need for safety, and that is law enforcement.
Consider what the former police chief in Dallas (who is now the new Chicago Police Superintendent) said back in 2016:
We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. . . . We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. . . . That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.
So what can we do? Invest in evidence based programs such as those that support: mental health treatment; crisis intervention; early childhood education; nurse-family partnerships; and long-term robust drug treatment. Provide funding for data driven diversionary programs. And invest in technology that allows police and prosecutors to both standardize and modernize our technological infrastructure.
By way of example, I would like to highlight some of important initiatives undertaken in my office. In doing so, I offer the thought that perhaps our approach to these programs can provide some guidance to how we should examine and consider the larger issues of change within our criminal justice system.
We have experienced for years that treatment may be a pathway to a safer community. For example, our Wellness Courts, which include drug, mental health, DUI and Veterans Courts have saved York taxpayers approximately $1.8 million during 2018. And at the same time, we have seen a simultaneous decrease in recidivism. In doing so, we have been able to keep our communities safe, reunite families, and support workforce development.
Mental health is an especially important component in many cases. We participate in the Stepping Up Initiative, which specifically focuses on diverting and managing defendants with mental diagnoses from prison at the time of arrest and identifying incarcerated defendants with mental health needs so they may be diverted for appropriate mental health treatment.
As a companion to Stepping Up, we are also engaged in the development of the Community Action for Recovery and Diversion (CARD) initiative. This is a public/private partnership aimed at diverting individuals with substance abuse issues in addition to mental health needs from the time of arrest. We look to break down silos by using and harmonizing existing resources and identifying additional ones so that eligible offenders can be diverted and provided community treatment and support, like housing and transportation.
For every $2 we spend on treatment, we can save the community up to $7 in community justice costs. This is a critical guiding principal and speaks volumes about why investing in the criminal justice system is an expenditure that will yield tremendous success – both in terms of public safety and cost savings.
Additionally, as District Attorney I further recognize the critical nature of community safety thorough my commitment to reentry initiatives. My office is a committed partner in the York County Reentry Coalition including my 1st Assistant District Attorney who serves as co-chair. I am committed to finding solutions to the systematic barriers that reentrants confront including areas of housing, employment transportation and public health. It is critical for a District Attorney’s office to collaborate with a wide array of community partners including service providers to tackle these serious matters.
Why is this important? Individuals who are gainfully employed are much more likely to be productive members of society. They have a feeling of accomplishment. They can help support their families. And they are less likely to commit more crimes. All of which is directly tied to public safety.
I realize that for any of this to achieve its ultimate success, law enforcement must be a backbone to these measures. We must never lose sight of the fact that law enforcement officers on the street are on the front lines dealing with the harshness of addiction and mental health issues. With each passing day, society puts law enforcement officers in the tenuous positions of protector, defender, servant and social worker. All at a moment’s notice. They are expected to have the answer to every question and solution to almost every problem. We must do everything we can to get them the resources and training to do their job. Their work is the cornerstone of every initiative I have discussed.
Serving in law enforcement is not easy right now. Just ask the brave men and women who put their uniforms on every time when they go to work. Despite the fact that they literally put their lives on the line for their communities, they are more and more subject to derision, scorn, and abuse. I am not talking about peaceful protests. I welcome the passionate, robust, and peaceful exercise of first amendment rights. But the vitriolic attacks on our officers are having a profoundly negative effect on their ability to do their jobs. I ask, how many among us can match the bravery of those who risk their lives every day?
Citizens of every community have the absolute right to demand that their governments guarantee their public safety. Law enforcement is a critical partner in accomplishing this goal. While we strive to better our approaches, we can only succeed by doing so with the complete support of, and collaboration with, law enforcement. Together, we will improve all of our communities and create the better tomorrow that everyone deserves.
Thank you for this hearing and thank you for the excellent legislative work you do on behalf of law enforcement. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
York County District Attorney – Dave Sunday