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Ravitch getting good marks after first year

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Jill Ravitch survived her first year as Sonoma County district attorney in part by being an early riser.

The Sebastopol resident is up before dawn, checking email at 4:30 a.m. before tackling a full schedule of staff meetings, budget talks and community luncheons.

In addition, the 53-year-old lawyer is continuing her weekly teaching duties at Empire College law school and fulfilling an election promise to personally prosecute cases by preparing for trial in a Healdsburg murder case.

“It’s a lot of work,” Ravitch said over a cup of coffee in the conference room of her bustling office. “But I enjoy it.”

By most accounts from the legal community, Ravitch has done well in her first 12 months as the county’s top law enforcement officer, and is a marked improvement over her predecessor, Stephan Passalacqua, whom she defeated in a bruising 2010 election campaign.

After a tense transition in which she received little cooperation from the previous boss, Ravitch took the reins of the 111-member office and guided it through a 12 percent budget reduction without a single layoff.

At the same time, Ravitch said her attorneys filed an estimated 16,000 criminal cases on 22,000 police reports, including 29 homicides, 300 sexual assaults and 400 gang cases.

She beefed up elder protection and white-collar crime units while moving more experienced attorneys to the gang prosecution team.

But perhaps most striking is her quick decision-making. Ravitch is determining things like whether to seek the death penalty on capital cases in weeks, not months, saving taxpayers on extra court costs and legal fees.

She’s also given more discretion to deputy prosecutors in charging and reaching plea bargains, further streamlining the justice process.

Both friends and foes agree it’s a significant departure from past practices and a promising start for for the trial-lawyer-turned-administrator.

“I think the court is extremely pleased with having Ms. Ravitch as district attorney,” said Rene Chouteau, presiding judge of Sonoma County Superior Court. “We give her a very positive report card at the end of the year,” he said, describing a common sentiment among judges.

Even some former Passalacqua supporters are impressed. Ed Clites, president of the 500-member Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association that endorsed Passalacqua in 2002, 2006 and 2010, said he will endorse Ravitch for reelection in 2014. Clites gave her high marks despite some unhappiness from investigators over the elimination of take-home cars as a cost-cutting measure.

“Obviously, my folks weren’t happy about that. But as far as Jill’s first year, I think she’s done a good job,” said Clites, a correctional sergeant. “No complaints.”

Ravitch has her critics within the District Attorney’s Office, but none would speak publicly for this story.

Privately, some current employees accuse her of cronyism for hiring two friends, including one who was a paid consultant on her election campaign, and promoting a third supporter to management.

Deputy district attorney Wendy Skillman was hired this year after working as a prosecutor in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. According to Ravitch’s campaign finance reports, she was paid more than $900 for consulting and political mailings.

Ravitch also hired former deputy public defender Ann Gallagher-White, who made non-monetary contributions to the campaign worth $2,000.

Among her first decisions upon taking office was the promotion of longtime prosecutor Bud McMahon to interim chief deputy. McMahon also campaigned for Ravitch.

Ravitch responded that she needed to bring in people she could trust. The attorneys she hired were best qualified for the job, Ravitch said.

“The decisions were predicated on ability, not friendship,” she said.

Other courthouse critics said Ravitch is too quick to settle cases. They point to last year’s slaying of Ziggy Craft at a Rohnert Park hotel. Instead of bringing murder charges against his accused killer, prosecutors charged Berry Adams with pimping and a gun charge. A preliminary hearing is scheduled next month that will determine whether the case goes to trial.

There’s a perception among some critics that prosecutors charge fewer crimes, go to court less often and win fewer convictions.

Records obtained from the courts show felony and misdemeanor filings have dropped from 19,886 in Passalacqua’s final year to 18,328 in 2011 under Ravitch. Her office said 2011 conviction-rate statistics requested by The Press Democrat were still being compiled and would be released in the future. She made an issue of Passalacqua’s conviction rate in the 2010 campaign.

Ravitch said she only pursues cases she can prove and that plea bargains are “a necessary evil.”

“You have to plea bargain or the system comes to a grinding halt,” she said.

Still others criticized what’s been described as Ravitch’s sometimes abrasive management style. She’s been accused of publicly reprimanding employees and storming off — known to some courthouse watchers as a “Jill Ravitch drive-by.”

“I think she is everything she was advertised to be,” said Santa Rosa attorney Mike Li, who left the District Attorney’s Office last year to open his own practice. He noted that “she can have a gruff personality at times,” but also said: “She’s a very experienced prosecutor and she supervises cases in a way that reflects that experience.”

Ravitch acknowledges a period of insecurity and adjustment, but said the office is operating smoothly.

“There’s a certain calm and resilience that has set in,” Ravitch said.

Ravitch, a 20-year prosecutor with a hard-nosed reputation, became the county’s first woman district attorney after beating Passalacqua in the June 2010 election with 54 percent of the vote. She was paid $205,492 last year, including car and cash allowances, and received benefits valued at $88,837.

It was her second attempt to unseat her former colleague, who she accused of lacking her trial experience and putting politics ahead of justice.

The two clashed in several debates in which Ravitch assailed Passalacqua for having among the lowest conviction rates in the state.

Passalacqua fired back that she was too cozy with defense attorneys, accusing her of making “sweetheart deals” when she was a prosecutor in Mendocino County.

Ravitch won the election with endorsements from most law enforcement groups and defense attorneys.

As a lame duck with six months left in office, Passalacqua hired a half-dozen new lawyers and refused any input from Ravitch. She wasn’t allowed to set foot in the office until inauguration day, Jan. 3, 2011.

Ravitch faced immediate challenges.

A county financial crisis required her to slash her $22 million budget. And she inherited a botched hit-and-run case involving the death of an elderly Cloverdale man that grabbed headlines, a case that included the failure to notify the victim’s family members of the driver’s sentencing hearing, thus denying them the chance to be heard. An outside prosecutor was brought in to take over the case from McMahon and another deputy district attorney.

She maneuvered through the cuts by offering buyouts to employees and reducing expenses. And she recovered from the Cloverdale controversy by enhancing policies on victim notification.Other bumps in the road included controversies over some hiring choices and discontent from her investigations team over the loss of their car perk.

Internally, she made some staff reassignments and disbanded the office’s dedicated homicide prosecution team.

But she argued for the need to spread more serious cases among the entire staff for training purposes.

She made good on her promise to pair inexperienced lawyers with senior attorneys. She also has made top managers handle cases.

“I’m happy with her performance,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, who also was elected in 2010. “I think we’re working well together.”

Challenges in her second year include expected budget cuts that could lead to staff reductions and dealing with the state’s prison realignment, which is expected to eventually increase the county jail population by 230 inmates and shift 160 parolees from state supervision to the county probation department.

The Family Justice Center, a clearinghouse for victims’ services run by the District Attorney’s Office, also faces funding uncertainties.

Ravitch said she’ll continue to make adjustments. Later this year she’s expected to name a second-in-command. Many insiders said it will probably be McMahon.

And on Tuesday, Ravitch will return to the courtroom to personally prosecute her first case as district attorney: the trial of Healdsburg murder suspect Jarrod Miller, who is accused of shooting his sister’s boyfriend.

Three years from now she’ll ask voters for a second term.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” Ravitch said. “I’m enthusiastic about the strides we’ve made.”

Conviction rates: Meaningful number or political weapon?

In her successful 2010 bid for Sonoma County district attorney, Jill Ravitch hammered two-term incumbent Stephan Passalacqua over a conviction rate she said dropped to second-lowest in the state.

Ravitch vowed to do better, touting two decades of trial experience she said made her better qualified to make decisions and lead an office of about 50 prosecutors.

Voters were persuaded by the tough-talking litigator and elected her by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.

But a year into the job, Ravitch is unable to say whether she’s winning any more cases than her predecessor.

In response to a request for conviction-rate statistics made earlier this month by The Press Democrat, her office said it did not have the data. The statistics are being collected and will be released at an unspecified date, Ravitch spokeswoman Christine Cook said in a Jan. 17 letter.

During the 2010 campaign, Ravitch challenged the 88 percent conviction rate claimed by Passalacqua for felony cases that went to trial — a small portion of the total cases.

She cited state Department of Justice statistics from 2003 to 2008 that showed Passalacqua never scored better than 74 percent and had the second-lowest rate in 2007 at just 62 percent, or 20 points below the state average.

She argued Sonoma County deserves better.

“There’s a terrible pattern here. You’re looking at someone who is consistently receiving a grade of D- or F. We deserve better,” Ravitch said during the campaign.

Passalacqua called the state’s numbers inaccurate and requested a formal review.

He said his overall conviction rate was 79 percent, a figure he called “outstanding” at a time when county residents supported treatment and jail diversion programs.

Justice officials conceded their numbers could be unreliable, but said they were based on county reporting. Statistics for 2011 were not posted on the state’s website.

Legal scholars questioned the difficulty of compiling trial conviction-rate statistics, but cautioned they were only one measure of a prosecutor’s performance.

Robert Talbot, professor of law at the University of San Francisco, said they are mostly a political tool. A majority of criminal cases never go to trial, so it’s important to consider other factors such as settlements and plea bargains — two things that are hard to quantify.

There are also other variables, like the quality of police investigations and the composition of local juries, he said.

“The conviction rate is an all-important political fact,” said Talbot, a former criminal defense lawyer. “But winning or losing might not have much to do with how good a prosecutor you are.”





20 Responses to “Ravitch getting good marks after first year”

  1. Ruben says:

    @thurgood. Oh who is the anonymous source. please tell us their nom de plume(s) and name.

    Also while Ravitch is trying to get her name in the paper on a trial anyone could handle. The office is falling apart. Read today’s paper. Now her hand picked people are violating the constitution. Do these people have a clue. Ravitch is simply not Fit to lead.

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  2. Thurgood says:

    @Ruben. In fact one of Ravitch’s ADAs is a regular contributor here. Care to guess which nom de plume(s)? Care to guess how long he has been on the job? You nailed it.

    His promotion of Ravitch is less surpising than is his criticism for other SC officials (criticism which I’m certain Ravitch would not want her office associated with).

    Enough of this. Let Ravitch (and her resident underling) get back to picking low-hanging fruit. I’ll admit that Ravich is an improvement over Passalacqua but this isn’t saying much.

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  3. Ruben says:

    Ravitch is unethical. No matter who the da is, you don’t hire your friends and paid political consultants to a government job with public benefits. These people are the best for the job? That’s how Ravitch justified hiring her friends! What a joke. Rumor is they are not good at thier jobs and are not respected by those around the courthouse.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  4. Just Me says:

    @ Money Grubber, your comment is not relevant to this article. Go to the right page to follow the story and to the right agency to complain.

    @ To those concerned about who Jill has hired. Did you also complain with SRP hired/promoted his buddies? Did you complain when he “created cause” to get rid of those that he felt would hold him to the higher standards and ethics of his predecessors? Did you complain when he hired 4 attorneys as extra help, worked them for a year then hired them to full time status with benefits and then TERMINATED them a day before their probation period expired without explanation of why? Did you complain when SRP created a second Assistant DA (2nd in command and 2nd highest paid in the office) position after his election to office so he could hire whomever he wanted because he needed someone he could trust because the entire management team had supported Mullins? I didn’t think so.

    There are Civil Service Rules in place that Jill MUST follow in order to hire or promote ANYONE! Those she has hired and promoted that you are complaining about had to have been on the appropriate list, and there had to have been a vacancy in those positions in order for her to have hired and/or promoted them. Obviously you are not a County Employee familiar with the rules or you would know this.

    Do your homework before you complain please.

    And, just as you want equal rights for yourself and your family and friends…treat everyone else equally.

    Jill is willing to work. Stephan was willing to delegatge the work and play politician instead. He was very good about spending your tax dollars very freely too.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 5

  5. Ruben says:

    Grame get over your love fest for Ravitch. We know you are her friend and supporter. Did she give you a job too or better yet. Will she soon

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 15

  6. Graeme Wellington says:

    @Money Grubber – Glad to see you stay on topic at all times. Refreshing. Complain to Attorney General not Sonoma County District Attorney. Eric Holder will evaluate whether or not the Park Ranger is an Obama supporter or not and take appropriate action if she isn’t. Fair enough for you?

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 6

  7. Money Grubber says:

    Graeme Wellington:

    Time for you to catch up with the news.

    Not only is it true that a park ranger shot a man in the back with a taser stun gun over his not having a lap dog on a leash (San Mateo County, CA), the park ranger was FEDERAL on FEDERAL land. Has nothing at all to do with the state. Nothing.

    MORE IMPORTANTLY, STATE CONTROLLER JOHN CHANG JUST ALERTED THAT CALIFORNIA WILL RUN OUT OF CASH IN ABOUT 4 WEEKS.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  8. Graeme Wellington says:

    @Allen A — who are the white collar criminals she could be prosecuting but isn’t? What about the millions of dollars the civil division of the DA’s office has recovered during her tenure?

    If any law enforcement agency submits a case proving a white collar crime — why do you believe Ravich wouldn’t or isn’t pursuing it?

    As far as a Park Ranger — that’s a state officer operating on state property so it’s probably not her jurisdiction. Complain about the State Attorney General’s inaction — assuming any or all of what you claim is true.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 6

  9. Money Grubber says:

    I am curious what the DA thinks about the assault by a park ranger upon a mere dog walker in San Mateo County (just South of San Francisco).

    The dog walker did not have his dog on a leash and the ranger in anger shot that man in the back with her stun gun.

    Of course, the government published the name of the dog walker and WITHHELD the name of the so called park ranger who used a stun weapon on the man.

    Between this story, and the recent news item showing that the SHERIFF of San Francisco was arrested for beating his wife and apparently a former girlfriend, also, we can see the direction of a corrupt out of control greedy government.

    The only solution: deprive government of its ability to steal our money by calling the theft “taxes.”

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  10. Ruben says:

    Something is fishy here Am I missing something?. Ravitch hired her friends. Gave them a job with a pension AFTER they donated to her campaign! What about poitical payback in hiring a paid political consultant and giving them a government job with a government pension paid for by the taxpayers.

    Isn’t it illegal for an elected public official to give friends and paid poitical consultants public jobs in return for their monetary support of the candidate. I hope the grand jury is looking into this. Breath of fresh air!!!! Smells mighty bad to me.

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  11. HotSauce says:

    @ Dan, Thank you for your response, I fully see all your points. I can only say I was leaning more towards those prosecutors who fall short in the ethics department and are all to inclined to use dirty tactics – void the intention to serve justice, but to get a win under their belts.

    The reason I bring this up, I once heard a prosecutor say this after a horrifically bias case in which conviction was won solely on a Hollywood worthy story / theory the prosecutor conjured up.

    “Oh…but the truth doesn’t matter, he was convicted”

    That statement will stay with me forever. I work in the legal field and have watched many criminal cases in person. In my professional opinion competing for a statistical gain can, and often does, trump the pursuit of justice in the hands of a weak or / and unethical individual, especially when they have a “team” doing the same thing and a DA who may in fact promote this behavior.

    As Coral so accurately stated – it’s food for thought, which is required to be a good and discerning citizen.

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  12. good one says:

    What a breath of fresh air. An elected official that can get the job done. Finally.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 17

  13. coral says:

    @HotSauce, You raise true concerns regarding the use of ‘Conviction rates’.
    Also, when a special team is created, that ‘team’ must then justify its existence. Lots of food for thought here.
    I’m glad D A Ravitch has replaced Passalaqua.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 13

  14. Allan A says:

    I’d like to see more prosecutions of white collar and economic crimes.

    If the feds won’t prosecute “organized crime” based on Wall Street, why can’t their local operatives be prosecuted, as in any other consumer fraud?

    There also needs to be stronger enforcement of environmental laws.

    How much money is being spent cleaning up the abandoned boats and junk in the Petalum River? Did the winery that cut-down the redwoods along Hwy 116 across from Harmony Farms violate any laws? They clear-cut more land in Forestville for their other vineyards. How much can they get away with?

    The public pays a lot of money to correct problems caused by the greedy and those who don’t care to follow the rules. Time to make them pay for their crimes.

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  15. Dan Drummond says:

    A quick comment on conviction rates. These have to be taken with a grain of salt. As the article alluded, there are many factors beyond the D.A.’s control that have a bearing on whether a conviction can be obtained or not, factors such as the quality of the police investigation (e.g., did the officer take the extra effort to get a usable fingerprint or did he/she just go through the motions?), willingness of witnesses to testify, and financial resources necessary to prosecute the case. And at the same time, there are factors within the D.A.’s control that similarly effect the conviction rate, such as opting to plea bargain a difficult case rather than try it. In fact, a more agressive D.A. willing to try the difficult cases will likely have a lower conviction rate than his/her colleague in the next county who plays it safe and only tries the sure winners. Conviction rates may appear to be easy handles by which to guage a D.A.’s performance, but without more informaton they really tell you nothing.

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  16. HotSauce says:

    @ Paul Payne – Can you elaborate on the duties and mission statement of the old “dedicated homicide prosecution team.”?
    Why was it disbanded? Were those belonging to this team relocated or were they joining the unemployment lines?

    On another note Paul, as a citizen yourself, what is your take on prosecution “ratings”? The way it is worded in many articles I read they attempt to draw the reader away from the fact that 1: Not every person is guilty 2: A conviction rate says very little in regards to the service of justice. 3: If those prosecution rates are down statistically, is it humanly possible that… maybe the crime rate has improved? Do we not also watch the crime rate statistics and hope they are lower? Could it be a double sided coin of wanting the cake and eating it too?

    Would love any comments from you on this Paul, or any others for that matter!

    “Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.”

    “Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power” – James Madison

    Have a great day everyone :)

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  17. Justice Arrives says:

    Jill has lived up to her word… she is completely dedicated to this job, ethical, and really believes in justice. I am not sure Paul Payne gave her much credit for her many accomplishments, just a good headline is all. The rest of his article were subliminal stabs at her work.

    Jill, the legal community and citizens appreciate your dedication and hard work. We know that you are sacrificing even your weekends to fulfill your promises, something the former DA never dreamed of.

    You are an inspiration to those at the DA’s office and we applaud you for your commitment to our community.

    Ignore the critics, they are the same people crying about anything, regardless of the subject matter.

    Listen just to those you serve, the voters and enjoy another few more terms in office. Don’t look back either, SP is in the wind!

    I bet this doesn’t get approved but we will see if they censure this one.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 12

  18. Laura Gonzalez says:

    I’m glad to count Jill as a friend. Sonoma County made an excellent choice!

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 14

  19. Billy C says:

    I Have never been a Jill fan but I have to say she seems to be doing a good job.
    A job that is probably one of the more
    difficult positions with in the county.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 14

  20. Joseph Donegan says:

    One wonders about those that work in the cold harsh adverse court of law enviorment.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 5

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