Courting Disaster

Berkeley shoplifters aim low, a dagger in the backseat, and an assistant DA says jail can be a good thing.

As if it weren’t enough that all Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville misdemeanors have been crammed into Oakland’s sole courthouse ever since Berkeley’s three courts closed in 2003: Oakland’s city council closed Oakland’s city jail in 2005, allegedly to save money. Transporting suspects to Santa Rita keeps the already-overstretched Oakland cops off their beats, yet another reason the average daily number of arrests here has dropped from eighty to fifty since the jail’s closure. Thirty years ago, trials were held daily in Oakland: now, only on Mondays. This means endless delays, light or no sentences, and unresolved cases. Murder cases wait more than four years before being tried. Insufficient staff and equipment means that if your car is among the 7,000-plus that will be burgled — or stolen and found — in Oakland this year, it won’t be fingerprinted. In Hayward or Fremont, it would.

“Victims lose faith in the system after their cases have been delayed four or five times,” says Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Rogers, lamenting this system’s post-’70s shrinkage. He takes issue with Mayor Ron Dellums’ recent remark to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that Oaklanders wouldn’t want “a police force so large that it represented an oppressive presence.” At neighborhood-group meetings that Rogers attends in high-crime flatlands districts, “citizens uniformly say they want more police presence and stiffer sentences. It’s not a matter of debate. They’re very, very angry” about prostitution, stickups, and drug deals on their streets, and about being kept awake all night by screeching cars, music, and gunfire.

Small crimes evolve into big ones; suppressing the small ones is like catching cancer early. Shoplifting, for instance, is so rampant that it keeps many retail businesses from opening or staying in Oakland. Shoplifting is the reason Eastmont Mall closed, says Rogers, an Oakland native who fondly remembers a once-thriving downtown. Insiders at Lucky and Safeway have told him that “because of thefts in the stores, they can’t make a profit here.”

Knowing how unlikely they are even to be caught, Rogers says criminals believe that “Oakland’s a free zone.” Yet crime could be curbed here, he argues, if more nonviolent offenders served even two-week jail terms, learning that actions have consequences: “If someone does a crime and does no time, he becomes a hero to his friends. That empowers him.” Draconian prison sentences aside, a little jail time can be a good thing, he insists.

At a town-hall meeting this month, Dellums avowed: “When crime and violence were constrained to the barrios and the ghettos and the ‘hoods, people didn’t pay any attention.” This, too, irks Rogers, who argues that “people — those 95 percent of flatlanders who aren’t doing crimes — have been paying attention. They’re the victims. They can’t afford to move. They’re trapped.” And it’s not just white people who are fed up, he believes. “African Americans in great numbers are begging for more police. They aren’t being heard, and their government leaders are letting them down.”

A belief that community-based diversion programs should totally replace incarceration is part of “the wouldn’t-it-be-nice world. This is the real world,” says Rogers, whose advocacy for more courts and cops is shared by DA Tom Orloff himself. (Santa Rita, by the way, isn’t overcrowded.) “The mistake people make is that we’re trying to hurt young people. We’re trying to help them. If they do crimes and nothing happens — ultimately, that’s what hurts them. “

Noble causes: In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean stole bread because his family was starving. In Berkeley’s Urban Outfitters, an eighteen-year-old stole “brown lace underwear” on October 9, according to police. Because her family was … wearing white cotton briefs? The previous day, a man stole thirty DVDs from Berkeley’s Blockbuster. Because his family was … making popcorn?

Thought crime stalks Walnut Creek: In the wee hours of October 10, a woman called the Walnut Creek police to report that, according to the log, “20 tapes w/ recordings of her thoughts and conversations w/ now deceased loved ones have been erased.”

The evil irony: Guy walks into a Concord law office and asks for a job. Employee leaves room to consult with colleague, returns to find job-seeker gone — with her $200 wallet. Which contained only $10. Bet he took the cash, tossed the wallet.

Your point: A knuckle-dagger is a sharp knife whose grip has four fingerholes. Way to hang on tight while stabbing! On October 5, Piedmont cops received a knuckle-dagger from a woman whose child had discovered it in the backseat of a rental vehicle.

Correction: This column originally included an item in which we erroneously confused Antioch murder victim Faith Blevins with East Bay choreographer Faith Blevins. We regret the error, and any pain it may have caused either family.

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