After living in office limbo for several weeks, Maggie Fleming took over the District Attorney's office at the beginning of the year. Fleming spent much of the last year planning ways to improve the office. On Jan. 2, she sat down with the Journal to discuss some of her ideas and the immediate actions she'll be taking to work with her 10-attorney staff.
NCJ: On the campaign trail you mentioned a few times the problems that you thought were facing the office. ... What are the first steps?
Fleming: ... Initially, I think my responsibility to restore the trust the community has in the criminal justice system, as well as the confidence they have in the DA's office, is to oversee the cases that are currently set. I'm literally going to pull in the attorneys who are handling them, review the files and start looking at all the serious and violent cases — what our offers are. So, as I said throughout, one of the concerns I have is that lack of oversight because I think that's how we work in consistency and justice.
And then, also, rebuilding the office. We're down a number of attorneys. Some positions were frozen. Fortunately, with Measure Z passing, I'm going to be seeking that those are unfrozen. And then we also have some vacant positions and I'm going to be working hard to fill those so we can get back to full staff which is right around 14, 15 attorneys.
NCJ: Who's going to be handling the violent felonies?
Fleming: Those are assigned to the senior attorneys currently, and they will continue to handle those. I've got two annuitants, Wes Keat and Andrew Isaac — I'm sorry, annuitant is such a county word — two retired attorneys, prosecutors, so they cannot work more than half time. They can work six months full time or mornings only. ...
They both worked here for a number of years and are very familiar with some of the people in the office as well as just, you know, the county. They're going to help me with overseeing the cases, reviewing the cases and also handling some of the responsibilities for the cases — just to assist all of those there at the office
NCJ: Who do you think, or do you know, is going to be handling the high profile cases? The Father Freed case comes to mind.
Fleming: Some of those have a gag order so I can't really be discussing those. Otherwise, with the exception of Paul [Gallegos]'s cases, which have to be redistributed, the cases will remain with who they're currently assigned to.
NCJ: Does [Gallegos] have a pretty high caseload at this point?
Fleming: He's got a couple homicides.
NCJ: Have you decided who's going to be the assistant DA?
Fleming: You know, I'm not going to have an assistant. Again this is something that I spoke to during the campaign. When Paul and I discussed it, my preference was: When you're short attorneys, everybody should be in the courtroom. Ultimately what that means, then, is the DA picks up most of the responsibility that the assistant was previously handling. So, in a sense, I'm stepping away from the courtroom to handle all of the administrative duties. So, I'll be doing that full time. ...
NCJ: What about charging decisions? Who's going to be making those?
Fleming: Initially, I'll be handling the charging responsibilities. That's something that in the past the assistant has done as a full-time position. I'll be handling those along with the assistance of Wes Keat and Andrew Isaac because there is somewhat of a backlog in the office currently and I need to get caught up. ...
[In] smaller counties frequently the DA is the person who handles the charging responsibilities. I've done that in the past with this office and Contra Costa County's office and I think that's really critical because it does provide that consistency at the very first stage.
NCJ: How's the transition up to this point? Have you been meeting with the staff?
Fleming: Absolutely. With Paul, discussing the cases, discussing the situation with the budget, meeting with the attorneys, the investigators in the office, discussing cases, issues, sort of our ideas moving forward, asking for their input.
NCJ: What’s the tenor of the office, are they excited?
Fleming: I think so. I mean, everyone has said that to me, so I get that feeling.
NCJ: Have they come to you with things they’d like to see changed or issues they’d like to see addressed, as far as administration?
Fleming: Not anything specific. Overall they would like to have sort of that consistency of knowing that they can come to me with questions that we can discuss things. And absolutely I intend to do that.
NCJ: Are you planning any changes for the investigative bureau?
Fleming: No, no. Down the road — I mean, everything is going to take a little time — what I would like to set up is more of a team system where investigators are assigned specific attorneys and they work cases from start to finish together. I think that builds in more responsiveness to the victims and witnesses but, also, I think it helps the case be more effective.
NCJ: Would that be focusing the investigators and attorneys on certain types of criminal activity?
Fleming: It’s more the pairing up — so the idea is that if an attorney is in trial, they have someone that is assigned to them from start to finish. And it is also the idea that, in a sense, the attorney and the investigator are both building up an expertise in a number of areas and can assist each other. So investigators are out trying to contact witnesses or are finding out additional information and then they're immediately [giving] the DA handling that case that information.
NCJ: Do you have longer term goals that you have to do things now to set them in motion? What are some of those?
Fleming: Yes. Ideally, what I've always appreciated in other offices that I've worked in as well as here when we used to have it, is vertical prosecutors in specific areas: domestic violence is one, child abuse is one, elder abuse is one. Those sorts of cases. Sexual assault cases. And then, obviously, if you can, environmental crimes.
So one person handles it from charging to sentencing. That person builds up expertise. They're learning from each case how to do it better. And it means that a victim, no matter where they are in the county, knows that's their go-to person. And it really — it helps. And what it also does is it alleviates those really time-consuming cases from the general felony caseload, so that then the people who are handling the large felony calendars are better able to do that.
… You can imagine when you’re in calendar and you have 60 cases, if a domestic violence victim is there — to appeal to the court about concerns, whatever — it’s as if they have to come up and make their statement and then go away. And you can’t even give them your time because you have 59 other cases. Whereas if you have a vertical prosecutor, like in my situation where I did the child abuse [services] — I come to court with that person because I probably only have five cases going on in the whole courthouse during that period of time. So I’m with that child, that parent, I address the court on their behalf, we’re there and it just builds in so much. The system works so much better: The victim feels like they’ve been heard and the cases are so much more effectively prosecuted. That’s something I would very much like to get into place, you know, as soon as I can.
We have this wonderful child abuse services office that helps victims; children who are victims of crime, or witnesses of crime, and also mentally challenged adults — it's not just children. And when they come for their interview, the interview's done informally. It's not done in a police department. It's a much lower level of stress. They're introduced to a social worker. They're introduced to a victim witness support person, they meet the deputy DA who's going to be handling their case. Those cases tend to be handled so much better because of that early-on contact.
My plan would be to do that for more cases, to do that for domestic violence and to do that for elder abuse. Because those are also people that need that special attention early on and for those services. One of the keys that we’ve seen with child abuse services teams is that by helping the victims early on in this system we’re helping them to stop [becoming] victims. And with domestic violence and elder abuse, that’s another real, serious problem. It’s not just his case. Because of the mental issues that result from being a victim of crime, frequently they’re re-victimized. So, anything we can do to try to alter that path. And a lot of that is providing services — counseling — early on.
NCJ: What does it take now to get those two things in motion?
Fleming: I've got to work, first of all, on getting the office fully staffed because then you can say to someone, "This is going to be your discreet caseload, this is going to be yours alone, and I can pull you out of the lineup for all of the other felony calendars in order to do that." So that's got to be the key. And then also working with all the other agencies that are involved in those types of cases.
That’s one thing that the child abuse services team was really good at. I was involved early on in that process of getting it started and we were involved with St. Joseph, we were involved with mental health, we were involved with department of health and human services. I mean everybody sort of came together and said, “What can we do to sort of change how these cases proceed? How can we help?” And that obviously is going to take some time.
NCJ: Do you anticipate handing off more charging decisions to deputy DAs in the future? Are you going to be helping them, mentoring them to know what you expect to see out of that?
Fleming: Yes, absolutely. Like I say, I've done the charging here and also elsewhere and one of the experiences I've had was you learn from seeing how other people charge cases and then you learn a lot from being in the courtroom and trying cases. And so once individuals have more experience in that realm, absolutely, they'll be doing some of the charging. But it's just building up that experience.
And then also, by mentoring and leadership, showing what the standard should be: “If you’re confronted with these factors, here’s what the appropriate charges should be.” Because our goal is either substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment — what you’re doing when you review a case is trying to see long term what should be the most appropriate outcome. That’s something that you consider when you’re making charging decisions.
Once I’ve sort of put that in place and observed people to know that they’re ready to make those decisions, absolutely, people will be taking on those responsibilities. And then, in the vertical units, frequently those people — with oversight — are making those decisions.