Commentary

Commentary: Julie Pitta

Interim DA Demotes City’s First Cantonese-Speaking Head of Victim Services

By Julie Pitta

Interim District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has made lots of headlines since being sworn in on July 8. Unfortunately, very little of the news is good. In short order, Jenkins announced a return to failed and cruel criminal justice policies like the “war on drugs,” and trying teenagers as adults. 

Much of her first months in office have been spent rushing around town, campaigning for the upcoming November election. She has been hit with tough questions, particularly surrounding her decision to take $153,000 from a non-profit connected to the recall of former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The money casts doubt on her often-repeated story that she quit the DA’s office in disgust, signing on as a volunteer for the recall.

Her answers are often less than satisfying. She tried to explain away the paycheck she received from Neighbors for a Better San Franciscoas money earned for an analysis of Proposition 47, a measure that reduced penalties for certain crimes. (The report has yet to see the light of day.) “I’m honest,” the interim DA said, evoking former President Richard Nixon’s famous claim during the height of the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.”

One question remains unanswered: Why did Jenkins fire 15 staffers and, demote three experienced prosecutors? Personnel changes can be expected whenever there’s a regime change in an office as politicized as that of the district attorney. But Boudin dismissed less than half that number. Axing that many staffers, has the potential to seriously hamper the effectiveness of the DA’s office. As one insider told me: “The office is already understaffed. When you fire that many people, the wheels are going to come off.” 

Among those who were demoted was Richmond District resident Kasie Lee, San Francisco’s first Cantonese-speaking head of victim services. Recently, Jenkins met with a crowd in Chinatown. 

“You’ve been struggling with feeling unheard and unseen,” she told the audience. “You are now seen, and you are now heard.” Jenkins was accompanied by a Cantonese interpreter who translated for the many non-English speakers in attendance. Lee, a prosecutor with deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was notably absent.

Lee’s demotion is a staggering blow for a community that continues to be plagued by racially-motivated crime. Earlier this summer, a 70-year-old Chinese American woman was beaten and robbed inside her Francisco Street apartment building. Weeks later, Gregory Chew, a Chinese American community leader, was brutally attacked near his south of Market home.

Last year, more than 8,000 victims availed themselves of victim services, a record number for the district attorney’s office. Many were members of San Francisco’s Chinese American community and good percentage of those were monolingual Cantonese speakers. They were served whether, or not the crime was reported or solved by police.

Lee enjoyed a close relationship with San Francisco’s Chinese Americans. Like many of them, her family’s story begins in Chinatown. Both her grandparents passed through the neighborhood before settling in other parts of the City. After graduating from law school, she has devoted her efforts to serving the community in which she was raised. Her first legal job was as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, overseeing community legal clinics in Los Angeles Chinatown, Little Tokyo and the Thai Community Development Center.

After returning to San Francisco, Lee continued her advocacy. Recently, she worked with Supervisor Gordon Mar to advocate for a Crime Victim Data Disclosure Ordinance, requiring the San Francisco Police Department to issue quarterly reports on victim demographics and the motivating factors for hate crimes.

As head of the DA’s victim services unit, Lee established a language-access policy for non-English speakers. More than a third of San Francisco is Chinese American, many of them monolingual Cantonese. Language-access services allowed them, as well as other non-English speakers, to understand complex legal proceedings. She established a stringent training program for victim advocates.

Shortly after Jenkins’ appointment, the San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Providers Association sent a letter to Mayor London Breed and the interim district attorney urging them to retain Kasie Lee as head of victim services and managing attorney of the juvenile justice unit. 

In the letter, co-chairs Dawn Stueckle and Dinky Manek Enty detailed Lee’s contributions. 

“More victims have attended and participated in juvenile court proceedings during the time that Lee has been in this unit than ever before,” Stueckle and Enty wrote. “Lee calls victims before the petition is filed to obtain their input and spends time explaining the system and process to them.

“Many opt to stay informed of the proceedings and often choose to observe court and participate. In watching the court process, many victims can see the traumatic backgrounds of the youth and, through that, put into context what happened to them,” they continued. “It is a healing process for both the youth and harmed parties.”

Their pleas were ignored as were the needs of a community that remains embattled. San Francisco’s Chinese Americans deserves better.

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com Follow her on Twitter: @JuliePitta

4 replies »

  1. Funny, upset about the firing of 15 attorneys and demotion of 3 by Jenkins without being equally upset about the 51 attorneys (about 1/3 of the staff) who were either fired or quit when Chesa Boudin took over. They were replaced with attorneys mostly from the ranks of defense attorneys and without experience as prosecutors. I think any outrage is misplaced here because Chesa Boudin wins any contest if you are going to be upset by fired attorneys.

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  2. 51 attorneys did what? If you add all of the attorneys who quit because they saw better opportunities with the recall campaign perhaps.

    But speaking of outrage, how do you feel about Miss Brooke pulling the funding and firing those involved with the DA’s Innocence Commission?

    https://missionlocal.org/2022/09/future-funding-uncertain-sf-da-innocence-commission/

    Julie Pitta mentioned and focused on WHO was fired, whereas you seem to think tossing around numbers without specifics is about misplaced outrage. Why would someone fire Kassie Lee or members of the Innocence Commission? Why is London Breed sending members of her own staff to manage the District Attorney’s office? Miss Brooke still has no real good reason for taking $150,000 plus from the artificial limb of the LLC that funded the recall campaign — doing legal analysis of which she has no expertise. Puhlease.

    I would say your perspective is itself misplaced Miss Shih.

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  3. How many experienced prosecutors left under Chesa Boudin because they felt the department was in shambles to the point that two judges publicly chastized the district attorneys office for the disarray? What was Chesa Boudin’s reaction to the death of the Thai grandfather Vicha Ratanapakdee? The assailant was “having some sort of temper tantrum”. I would say outrage is not displaced but should be directed to the previous DA, which apparently most SF voters agree with me since he was successfully recalled.

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  4. Oh so that disarray was because Chesa did something – or because attorney’s left when they saw better opportunities with the recall campaign. You never addressed the issue about who was fired, or about the $150,000 plus paid Miss Brooke, or even about how London Breed is sending staff to assist the DA’s office.

    It’s really sad how you are moving the goal posts. Which is of course why you decide to bring up an event with a quote as some sort of anecdotal justification from a New York Times quote taken completely out of context, as if that is rebuttal.

    BTW, the case is now going to trial, the case that Boudin brought to court and got delayed
    “It’s a little ironic that one of the highest-profile cases that helped ignite the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin is being prosecuted by none other than, you guessed it, the office of Chesa Boudin. That won’t remain the case, as Boudin will soon leave office, likely in July. But preliminary hearings in the January 2021 assault and killing of 81-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee began Tuesday at 850 Bryant, and per the Chronicle, Boudin’s assistant district attorney Sean Connolly is prosecuting the case.:

    https://sfist.com/2022/06/15/preliminary-hearings-in-vicha-ratanapakdee-case-begin-packing-courtroom-and-drawing-rally/

    So .. your point is … histrionics I think.

    55% of 50% registered voters who showed up to vote is less the 30 percent of the registered voters. I would surmised that at least half of the other 50% did not really care all that much to show up and vote, which means you should not count them in the favored-the-recall camp. Btw here is some math that you apparently don’t understand. 45% times 50 plus 50% times 50 is more than 55% times 50.

    You want to make this about Boudin Miss Shih because you cannot defend yourself against what I said. That’s why you find these non-sequitar emotionally laden red herring arguments.

    I never said I was a Boudin partisan. Corruption is corruption and Boudin is not the one who is corrupt.

    Like I said, your perspective is misplaced, and I think I just explained why.

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