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 Francisco, as 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 firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter: @JuliePitta