A Public Safety Officer Who Views Incarceration as the Last Resort
Date:  10-16-2015

As a prosecutor Paul Henderson believed a "victory" for his office meant helping to turn a defendant's life around
Via Governing

Should California’s Crowded Prisons Look to San Francisco’s Shrinking Jails?

When Paul Henderson graduated from law school, he says, “Nobody clapped.” That’s because his family was wary of his goal of becoming a prosecutor. Henderson grew up in the San Francisco housing projects, where law enforcement was often seen as an adversary, and his career decision didn’t sit well with his mother, a public defender, or his grandmother, a community activist. But Henderson rejected the notion that as a black man from a poor neighborhood, he was destined to represent criminal defendants. In the world where he was raised, racial minorities were disproportionately charged with crime—but also disproportionately victims of it. He chose a career in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office because he wanted victims and witnesses to be able to speak with someone who shared their background. But he also believed he could change the criminal justice system from within.

Henderson, who is 46, spent nearly 20 years as a prosecutor. Now he is deputy chief of staff and public safety director for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. But he remains an activist on criminal justice reform. And he is well versed in the challenges facing a state whose tough-on-crime approach hasn’t done much to improve public safety, best illustrated by the much-criticized “three strikes” laws. “People do bad things, and they absolutely should be arrested, and there absolutely should be justice,” says Henderson. “But what that justice can look like has to be a broader discussion than ‘more jail—end of discussion.”

Early in his career, Henderson began urging prosecutors and law enforcement to start rethinking what, exactly, constitutes a victory for the forces of justice. Victory, he believed, should be more than just obtaining convictions. Victory should be helping to turn an offender into a productive member of society. So Henderson started working with a diverse cadre of officials from both sides of the criminal justice system: judges, prosecutors, probation officers and law enforcement on the one hand, and social workers, nonprofit advocates and public defenders on the other. They created an approach in San Francisco that focuses aggressively on reintegration of ex-offenders into society. The city now has a wide array of programs and policies that often see jail or prison as a last resort and instead push criminals toward housing, education, social services and drug rehabilitation.

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