By Peter Minett
District Attorney Wilson grew up in northern California, went to UC Davis, and then onto McGeorge School of Law. He worked in the Nevada County District Attorney’s office from 2010-2018, then did a stint in the El Dorado County DA’s office before returning to Nevada County in July.
Jesse Wilson is a lifelong Democrat but is quite adamant that the office is strictly non-partisan. Political party platforms don’t square well with the nuts of bolts of administering the law, which is the DA’s job. Mr. Wilson’s priorities are to protect the public’s safety; ensure that victims of crimes are kept informed at all stages and that their voices are heard; and to provide a “measured, reasonable, and flexible approach to prosecution.”
District Attorney Wilson seeks to implement evidence-based programs in collaboration with the partners of the DA’s office, utilizing a range of possible ways to keep the people safe as well as victims’ needs and concerns heard. He pointed out that a rigid system breaks those it crosses. Flexibility allows for case specific review of circumstances, available options, and the best path to interrupt the cycle of criminal behavior. DA Wilson pointed out that someone who commits a crime must be accountable, but the end goal is for them to return to the fold of productive citizenry for their own, and most importantly society’s good.
The District Attorney’s Office is funded by the Board of Supervisors and works with other agencies. Law enforcement has a separate budget, as does the Probation Department, and Corrections. I had always assumed there was one big budget for the entire justice system, but in fact there are many other government agencies involved. In addition to the ones mentioned, the DA’s office also works with the Courts including the specialty courts. Specialty courts are those that involve multiple agencies to address the circumstances and people facing similar issues underlying their criminality. For example, Drug Court typically includes a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, drug treatment provider, probation officer, and other possible wrap around service providers. They work to provide appropriate accountability and authority, supervision, as well as support services and encouragement. The purpose is to reduce recidivism by resolving the drug problem concurrent with appropriate consequences. There is also a Mental Health Court, Veterans Court, and a new state-allowed mental health diversion program which District Attorney Wilson intends to leverage to best advantage.
In the 1990’s there was a strong push for long sentences, and ‘doing one’s time.’ The legislative climate has changed considerably to one in which the people of California have directed the laws towards shorter periods of jail time, with a less punitive, more restorative system. That means those convicted of crimes will return to our communities faster. Hence, it’s essential to leverage all the tools, and the collaboration among entities to provide re-direction and support so that convicted persons can function well when they re-enter society, slow the revolving door and reduce the strain on the criminal justice system.
In addition to deepening the trust other agencies place in him and his office, District Attorney Jesse Wilson wants to improve the credibility of the DA’s office. Integral to doing that is improving the training and mentoring of new prosecutors and improving conviction rates.
The bit about conviction rates seemed harsh to me, but Mr. Wilson pointed out that going to trial shouldn’t be a crap shoot. Everyone, including prosecutors, need to perform at a high level so that the people trust the DA’s office when it says that indeed a crime has been committed. Trust that the District Attorney and staff will hold those committing crimes accountable based on the evidence and the law. Trust hat when the evidence is not sufficient individuals will not needlessly be pulled into the criminal justice system needlessly; nor needlessly waste county resources in the process.
The District Attorney’s staff is charged with protecting the public, prosecuting the violation of laws, giving victims as much support as possible thru the process of securing justice, and preventing repeat criminal behavior. Mr. Wilson repeated those points in various ways throughout our conversation.
An electronic case management system was introduced a few years ago, but District Attorney Jesse Wilson wants to operationalize it to take advantage of what modern data management can provide. Better tracking and more thorough tracking will provide the Office with data with which to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and approaches. What works? What doesn’t? What next? All based on evidence, not philosophy, speculation nor hunches.
I had a few more questions.
What could the DA’s office do to enforce public health mandates? Mr. Wilson pointed out that 1) the DA’s office does not investigate crimes, issue citations or make arrests. Those are the purview of law enforcement and sometimes other agencies like Fish and Wildlife. 2) the Office only acts on what has been brought before it. 3) There are other agencies that handle issues like masks, primarily Public Health. Mr. Wilson pointed out that those kinds of violations are better handled thru licensing agencies or fines and that his office isn’t set up to deal with those kinds of issues. He added that violent crime is the highest priority for a District Attorney to target because of the impacts on the victim and society.
Illegal pot grows are getting more attention from the Office. Especially large ones operated by people with no interest in Nevada County than making money without paying taxes, often at the expense of forests and streams so beloved by our community.
Homelessness is not a crime but does require a lot of services. Homelessness can lead to criminal behavior but focusing on the crime and not the problem has been shown not to work well, and certainly not for the long term. Collaboration with other community stake holders is crucial to addressing this vast, complex issue. He added that we are very fortunate to have numerous involved people and organizations in Nevada County.
“Lastly,” I asked, “what are doing that is new, exciting, and proactive?” After a smile, he said the program wasn’t exactly new, but new to Nevada Co. A fifth-grade class is using Project Lead to learn about the justice system, utilize role playing, working thru scenario choices to build independent thinking and peer pressure resistance, and develop better decision making as a way to keep kids out of “the system.” Project Lead will launch in January 2022. As a retired teacher, I’m delighted!
Jesse Wilson is running in the November 2022 election to remain in office.
More information about the District Attorney’s Office:
More information about DA Jesse Wilson’s campaign and progress: