By Mary Blyth Jones
Most people are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the legal system and California law. Much of the time, most residents have little need to understand the finer details of the justice system and all the intricacies of bail, bond, plea bargaining and the department of corrections.
But the legal system is an intricate part of what keeps our society and culture functioning.
I had the opportunity to talk to Chief Salvador on the subject of the criminal justice system.
Coalinga Police Chief Michael Salvador likens the whole legal system as a diamond. When gem is found, it is usually in some rough form and not the dazzling jewel we know. In order for a diamond to be cut and polished, there has to be the correct number of angles and it must be structurally sound. If angles are off kilter, and a side is weak, the entire gem can fall apart. The criminal justice system functions in the same way. See
“A lot of people think that the criminal justice system is law enforcement,” said Salvador. “That is not an accurate depiction of the criminal justice system. In fact, the criminal justice system is all of us. We are all the criminal justice system. Each of us has a role to play in it. And each of us can either positively or negatively affect its outcome. Nobody wants to hear that part.”
Problem-oriented and community-based policing are just catch phrases that politicians use to make it look like there is something new going on, explained Salvador.
“Catch words are designed to make it appear that we’re doing something different’ Salvador said, “but if you truly understand the system, you quickly see through that. But people like to think that you need some program to deal with and reduce crimes. You really don’t. If you understand the system and how it works, you can get good at navigating the system and be effective. You can do a lot of things to make your community safer.”
There are myths about the Criminal Justice System that are perpetuated by the media. “CSI and all those are based on one little part of what the criminal justice system does and portrays a sense of what our capability is in an unrealistic way,” said Salvador. “You might work a case for years, sometimes and never get a conclusion, but in today’s society, they expect us to be able to do what they see on television. That is not even close to the way the system works.”
He referred back to the diamond reminding us that the diamond is perfectly balanced.
“But if a piece of it fails, the weight of other three pieces causes it to collapse, fail or flop. The whole thing falls apart. Each side has a role,” explained Salvador.
“It all starts with the Community. Then the system moves to law enforcement, then to the courts, and ending with corrections.
“Notice how the diamond is laid out,” Salvador continued. “There is a reason the diamond is arranged the way it is. Community and courts are opposite sides. Law enforcement and jails are on opposite sides of the hypothetical diamond. They directly relate to each other.”
“Again, it all starts in the community.” Said Salvador pointing to the diamond’s left bottom edge. “If the community does not activate the system, the system does not work. If the community does not cooperate or communicate, the system does not work. If the community does not take responsibility for its actions, it does not work. This piece of the system is normally the first piece to fail. It fails for a lot of reasons.
Unrealistic expectations is one huge problem the community has. They often believe that law enforcement can do things that prove to be illegal. They believe that Law enforcement has unlimited resources to handle any situation presented to it. Once a criminal is apprehended and processed, they will go to jail and be locked up for a long time. But the reality is, that person may or may not even see the inside of a jail cell long term. Finally that officers are infallible and don’t make mistakes.
Another problem is when the people, or the voters, decide to make a change to the system without being fully informed.
“They decide to make bad changes to the system,” said Salvador, “and when they don’t understand the way the system works, those changes can be horrible. Prop 47 and 57 are examples. They changed the system without understanding the ramifications of what they were voting for. They thought they were voting for safe schools, but what it really was, the public voted to release thousands of criminals. The voters had no idea of what their vote would create.”
When the community side of the diamond fails, everything rotates so that law enforcement has to take over the weakness of the community. (Counterclockwise around the diamond)
The first contact with the governmental portion of the system is law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is the most scrutinized piece of the system because they are so visible,” said Salvador. Many people think that law enforcement, can solve all of their problems. But that’s not the way it works.”
Community blames law enforcement for the crime problems they face because they are the ones directly in contact with them. Easy to identify. But many crimes have been classified from felonies into misdemeanors. Thefts under $950 are misdemeanors. Many crimes that used to be automatic felonies such as stealing a gun or agricultural thefts, are now all subject to the $950 standard.
Shaking his head, Salvador continued. “Criminals are not stupid. They use their phone aps in stores to track how much they are stealing. They can take items just up to the $950 limit knowing that they won’t be prosecuted even if caught. They will just get a ticket.”
I asked, what do you do with the frustration? That is a huge issue, answered Chief Salvador.
If law enforcement fails to provide adequate service, the whole system rotates back the other way and will crush the community.
“You see it every day,” said Salvador. “This is Ferguson. Rodney King. These are instances where the system failed. Law enforcements job is to documents facts and incidents. We do not care who is in the right or wrong. We document facts and match them up with the current law and move all of that into the courts.”
“The police job is done when they finish document facts, process paperwork, and send it to the next step in the chain (district attorney’s office).” Salvador went on, “Everyone wants to blame perceived service cuts on retaliation from the department about measure C’s failure. This is absolutely 100% not true. We told the community through the council what was going to happen if measure C did not pass. We tried to get them motivated to go out and vote for that measure. Unfortunately the community didn’t vote on that day. They stayed home, and that was essentially a no vote that allowed for the State Hospital precinct to have more influence than they should have had.”
“I told them all that there would have to be cuts to the department,” said Salvador. “Apparently no one believed us. The Law Enforcement part of the diamond in Coalinga now only has minimum staffing to handle calls for service. We ask for other agencies’ help when we have something larger. We rely on that help so we can the job done. We can’t handle everything.”
The district attorney’s office and the Courts are an extremely important part of the system. If this piece fails or is overwhelmed and cannot handle the capacity of the rotation of incidents, it will fail to provide needed services to the other parts of the diamond. This causes the diamond to fail.”
Not every case even makes it to the district attorney’s office. On television nearly everything works like clockwork: step one, two three. But in real life, this may not be the case. If the DA’s schedule is too crowded or the crime is not considered prosecutable, it may be dismissed with a fine or probation or sometimes, nothing at all.
“Then if you get a case through the courts and end up with a conviction of some kind,” said Salvador, “it goes to the correction system. This is the little known portion of the diamond and one of the most expensive pieces. Because of prop 47 and 57 and a lack of money to house prisoners, the system of corrections is starting to collapse. Failure of this part of the diamond will crush the community because criminals that would have normally gone to jail are being released back into the community.”
This will affect all facets of the diamond into a downward spiral. Community will see more criminal activity. Law enforcement must take more action with or without community support. Courts will not be able to handle all the cases.
Coalinga and its residents are in a difficult place. That first side of the legal diamond is an important part to keep strong. The community must be involved. When a fellow resident breaks one of those codes or laws, something needs to happen to hold that individual responsible for their misdeed(s). Ideally this would be handled quickly by those affected by the offence. If possible, the victim(s) of whatever happened would immediately report what happened clearly and accurately. If Coalinga residents can stand strong in their community, this can help balance the integrity of the diamond keeping law and order in the city. Without it, there will be that continual downward spiral into failure.