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.”