Unattributed Responses From Contra Costa County District Attorney Candidates Spark Concern

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Two out of five front-runner applicants for the job of top prosecutor in Contra Costa County pulled quotes from other sources without attribution in their applications for district attorney, KQED has learned.

Judge Diana Becton pulled large sections of responses on her application from a New York Times op-ed on bail reform written by Kamala Harris and Rand Paul, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, research papers and the websites of neighboring district attorneys.

Assistant District Attorney Tom Kensok pulled paragraphs from a Harvard Business Review article and implementation guides for mental health programs and violence reduction.

There are five finalists vying to fill the seat vacated by Mark Peterson in June. Peterson resigned as part of a felony plea deal with state prosecutors, who charged him with perjury and grand theft in connection with misuse of campaign contributions.

Contra Costa County supervisors are tasked with selecting an interim district attorney to fill the seat until voters elect a new top prosecutor in June 2018. The five finalists for the position participated in a candidates' forum on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Supervisor Diane Burgis of Oakley received an anonymous package at her office listing seven sources that Becton quotes in her application without attribution. Several other county leaders also received similar anonymous packages. Burgis said she and her staff double-checked the copied passages in Becton's application.


“It appears that it's true," Burgis said.

The anonymous sender solely targeted Becton and made no mention of passages copied without attribution from Kensok.

"I have no idea who they are or their motivation," Becton wrote to KQED.

Burgis said she is "very disappointed." She considers this an important opportunity to recruit someone who can help restore confidence and integrity to an office that "has been having a lot of challenges."

“So I would hope that all of the applicants would approach this whole process in that spirit,” she said. “And to, you know, plagiarize right off the bat is not a good tell.”

Becton is president of the National Association of Women Judges and has been a judge in Contra Costa County for two decades. In an email, the judge said she had no intention of passing the words off as her own.

"I borrowed liberally from criminologist and scholars as well as elected leaders and compiled them into summaries," Becton wrote. "Although there are quotes contained in my questionnaire responses, I did not always have nor record source information."

It's unclear from Becton's application that she is quoting the material, however. It is neither attributed nor surrounded by quotation marks.

Becton wrote that her intent was to include the best thinkers and ideas on criminal justice issues.

Burgis said using other people’s words without attribution isn’t the norm professionally.

"She's very intelligent," Burgis said. "She's articulate. So, you know, it's concerning that she couldn't put what she wanted into her application without having to borrow it from other people."

Burgis said she is still keeping an open mind about Becton. When Burgis spoke to KQED she had not yet had a chance to speak to the judge. The supervisor said her staff is checking the other applications for unattributed quotes as well.

Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen of Danville said she has great respect for Becton and her tremendous work, but that she was "disquieted" by the unattributed passages in the judge's application. Andersen didn't want to comment further until she speaks with the judge.

Becton wrote in an email that no supervisors had contacted her as of midday Thursday.

After learning of the unattributed passages in Becton's application, KQED analyzed the four other finalists' writings and found passages in Kensok's application that were also unattributed.

"I failed to attribute sources for some sections of my application," Kensok wrote in an email to KQED. "This was not done with any intent to deceive. With the Harvard Business Review Article, it was an oversight. I did not realize I had not gone back and rephrased those sentences. Thus, I neglected to place them in quotation marks. Regardless of reworking the sentences, I should have mentioned the author of the article. I believe it would have lent more authority to the plan."

Senior Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Paul Graves, who is also applying for the job, wrote in an email: "If it's true, it's disappointing."

"As a former prosecutor, I know that in order to keep our communities safe, citizens must trust that those in law enforcement are acting with honesty and integrity," applicant Judge Danielle Douglas wrote to KQED.

The other finalist for the position, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Supervisor John Gioia said he will not comment on either Kensok's or Becton's use of unattributed sources. He said he is focused on preparing tough questions to ask each of the applicants when they are scheduled appear before the Board of Supervisors next month.

Here is Kensok's response to KQED:

I failed to attribute sources for some sections of my application. This was not done with any intent to deceive. With the Harvard Business Review Article, it was an oversight. I did not realize I had not gone back and rephrased those sentences. Thus, I neglected to place them in quotation marks. Regardless of reworking the sentences, I should have mentioned the author of the article. I believe it would have lent more authority to the plan.

The other cut and paste sections came from implementation guides for mental health programs and violence reduction. These are evidence based models being implemented in other jurisdictions and it would be my plan to follow them here.

We are using the Group Violence Intervention manual in Ceasefire, while the Stepping Up Initiative and County Roles and Opportunities in Reducing Mental Illness Documents are already in use in the county. These documents outline things already at work in the county.

County Roles and Opportunities in Reducing Mental Illness in Jails was produced by the National Association of Counties, while the Stepping Up Initiative is linked on the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) website. I did not mean to portray any of these things as original ideas and do not believe the Board of Supervisors was misled into believing I was supplying original content. Nonetheless, I should have supplied the citations. I am happy to discuss the sources for all the ideas expressed in my application.

Here is Becton's response to KQED:

In preparation for the forum I did a significant amount of research on issues related to the problems in our criminal justice system, with an emphasis related to the problems in our criminal justice system, and reform. In the crunch, information was gathered from countless sources. I borrowed liberally from criminologist and scholars as well as elected leaders and compiled them into summaries. Although there are quotes contained in my questionnaire responses, I did not always have nor record source information. Even though the questionnaire responses were not written in the same manner, or with the same rigor that I would use when submitting an academic paper, I tried to bring the brightest thinkers and the best ideas to the discussion. The ideas are not new or based upon my original thought, and I do not attempt to pass them off as my own. Although I am in agreement with the thinking, my only intent was to highlight issues we face, such as bail reform, and other inequities that exist in our criminal justice system. I certainly do not take credit for the ideas, but I am a proponent of information that is advanced by the ideas.

Here are a number of passages KQED identified from Kensok's application that are pulled from other sources.

From the Harvard Business Review:

The once familiar picture of ethics as individualistic, unchanging, and impervious to organizational influences has not stood up to scrutiny. An integrity-based approach to ethics management combines concern for the law with an emphasis on managerial responsibility for ethical behavior. This strategy can help prevent damaging ethical lapses, while tapping into powerful human impulses for moral thought and action.

From a Department of Justice group violence intervention guide:

Protecting the most vulnerable people starts with understanding who they are and how they’re connected. Evidence and experience show that a small number of people in street groups—gangs, drug crews, and the like—drive the majority of violence in troubled neighborhoods. Group members typically constitute less than 0.5 percent of a city’s population, but they are consistently linked to 60 to 70 percent of the shootings and homicides. The internal dynamics of the groups and the honor code of the street drive violence between those groups and individuals.

From a National Association of Counties' guide for dealing with mental illness:

We need to develop pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion alternatives to help reduce the number of mentally ill people entering jails in the first place, and connecting them to treatment and other resources when they do encounter the justice system. This means partnering with community-based organizations and advocacy groups to provide Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to law enforcement officers.

Behavioral health departments and providers are partnering with law enforcement agencies to staff mental health coresponders or jail mental health coordinators to help divert people from jails and connect them to treatment.

Funding is always difficult, but it can come from diverse and often blended sources. Enrolling individuals into health coverage and connecting them with care is crucial. Many counties are enrolling individuals with mental illnesses into Medicaid or other health care coverage whenever possible. Particularly in states that have expanded Medicaid, many justice-involved individuals with mental illnesses will qualify for coverage. Medicaid coverage can connect individuals to the care they need once they are in the community and can help lower health care costs by decreasing hospitalizations and emergency room visits. It can also decrease recidivism.

In Monterey County, for example, a study found that individuals who received treatment for behavioral health disorders after release from the county jail spent an average of 51.74 fewer days in jail per year than those who did not receive treatment. Data collection is important for analyzing both point-in-time data as well as to track progress on any reform efforts.

For example, using a validated mental health screening tool at booking, and including the results in a format that allows them to be analyzed later in an electronic case management system, will help identify and count the number of people with mental illnesses coming into jail. Without knowing this basic baseline information about the population, it can be difficult to help pinpoint the source of the problem. Collecting and analyzing this data over time will help to show progress – or lack thereof – with initiative activities.

Here are a number of passages KQED identified from Becton's application that are pulled from other sources.

From Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note, to which every one of us falls heir.

From the New York Times op-ed:

Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally.
Yet that doesn’t happen for many of the 450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, or custody of their children.

People awaiting trial account for 95 percent of the growth in the jail population from 2000 to 2014, and it costs roughly $38 million every day to imprison these largely nonviolent defendants. That’s about $14 million dollars per year.

From Toptenz.net The Top 10 Worst Aspects of the Criminal justice System:

In 2006, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, found that 52% of former prisoners were re-convicted. ... While prison can be used to punish criminals and isolate them from society, it is also important to purse strategies that are proven to reduce recidivism because these strategies improve public safety. In recent years, programs focused on rehabilitation have proven a success in several states.

From The Juvenile Justice Exchange, "Re-thinking Juvenile Detention: Better Outcomes with Fewer Lockups":

With the annual cost of keeping a teen in juvenile detention topping $100,000 in many states, there is an increased focus on community-based programs for youths who commit less serious crimes. The states that have pursued alternatives to lockup are seeing fewer repeat offenders and are saving money, according to a new analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

From the San Francisco District Attorney's Advisory Group webpage:

Preventing crime involves working with the community to create meaningful partnerships to improve public safety. We are safer together when community members and law enforcement work together to identify public safety issues and solutions.

From a Harvard working paper on community prosecution:

Around the country, prosecutors and their offices are adopting a community-oriented strategies to bring about confidence in the District Attorney’s Office – one that focuses the attention and efforts of prosecutors not only on processing cases presented to them by police, but on quality of life, crime prevention, problem solving, building partnerships with citizens in the community, and incorporating the priorities of citizens into their mission and operations.

From the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office webpage on Neighborhood Crime Prevention.

Neighborhood Crime Prevention is another model to consider, where Community Prosecutors are assigned to a particular community to build a technical team of law enforcement and government partners, to work together with the community to improve public safety and coordinate with local government and community based organizations in the effort. A Community Prosecutor can also be assigned to work on Truancy Abatement in their area of the county.

Read Becton's application below.

Read Kensok's application below.

Applications for all candidates for Contra Costa County district attorney are available here.