DA under fire over job training program

June 22, 2009 6:39:18 PM PDT
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is facing tough questions about a job training program. It keeps drug felons who are in the country illegally, out of jail and expunges their records.

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The new scrutiny comes after the arrest of someone in the program for assault and robbery. The Los Angeles Times reported that an illegal immigrant called Alexander Izaguirre was arrested for assaulting and robbing a San Francisco woman last year. At the time, the suspect was enrolled in a program that has been praised by many in the law enforcement community. It's called Back on Track, the brainchild of Harris.

"It's about success and it's about accountability, not criminality," Harris told a gathering at the Hall of Justice in 2007.

Harris often highlights Back on Track in her campaign for state attorney general. She was not available for an interview Monday, but prosecutor Sharon Woo who oversees the program spoke with ABC7.

"Back on Track, first of all, is this incredible innovative program that the district attorney has put together to deal with low-level first-time offenders," said Woo.

The young adult participants arrested for the first time on a drug felony spend a year in the program, going through community service and job and lifestyle training. When they finish, their felony convictions are expunged.

One hundred thirteen drug offenders have graduated in the past four years. But the district attorney's office does not know how many were illegal immigrants. That is because they never asked.

"Individuals who are undocumented cannot be in that program," said Woo. "And we've addressed that issue. That happened a year ago. We've changed the criteria."

Police union chief Gary Delagnes says this is another example of illegal criminal immigrants slipping through the cracks.

"These are the things that happen when you're not vigilant about this type of situation," said Delagnes.

On this issue, Mayor Gavin Newsom agrees with Delagnes. Last year, he said he was unaware that his administration was protecting illegal juvenile immigrants convicted of felonies from being deported.

Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant, was one of them. He was charged with killing a father and his two sons. It was learned later that Ramos could have been deported when he committed two felonies when he was 17, but the city did not surrender him to immigration officials. Newsom has since changed the city policy.

"You have to have the honesty and forthright to say we're wrong, we're going to fix it," said Newsom.

Woo says all participants now have to show proof they can work legally.

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