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David Onek Tackles Criminal Justice Issues on Fast-Rising Podcast

By Andrew Cohen

A big challenge facing most neophyte podcasters—developing enough credibility to build a large listenership—won’t be a problem for Berkeley Law criminal justice expert David Onek.

The Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast, which Onek piloted in November 2009 and fully launched in February 2010, has already gained widespread attention. White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske appeared on the pilot episode, National Public Radio San Francisco affiliate KALW is airing excerpts on the radio and posting full shows online, and two colleagues recently called Onek—on the same day—asking to be a guest.

The buzz comes as no surprise to former Los Angeles Police Chief and New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who served as one of Onek’s first guests and calls him “one of the most promising young criminal justice leaders in the country.”

Onek, who founded the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice (BCCJ) in 2006 and was its executive director for more than three years, also serves on the San Francisco Police Commission. Before coming to Berkeley Law, he worked as deputy director of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Criminal Justice, as well as at the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Legal Services for Children, and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who will appear on the podcast later this month, says “David’s wide-ranging criminal justice experience in his remarkable career make him the perfect person to educate both criminal justice practitioners and the general public on how we can be smart on crime.”

A co-production of BCCJ and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, the weekly podcast features in-depth, half-hour interviews with law enforcement officials, policymakers, advocates, service providers, academics, and others. Onek’s close relationships with leaders in all of these groups have led to an impressive roster of guests such as NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous, who says Onek is “the rare criminal justice leader who is extremely well regarded by both the advocacy community and by law enforcement.”

Besides Kerlikowske and Bratton, recent guests include California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate, Omega Boys Club co-founder and executive director Joe Marshall, and California State Senator Mark Leno, Chair of the California Senate Public Safety Committee. The upcoming lineup features Harris, Jealous, San Francisco police chief George Gascon, Berkeley Law professor and criminologist Frank Zimring, and Mimi Silbert, president of the Delancey Street Foundation.

“Criminal justice issues are complex, but all we usually hear are brief sound bites and simplistic slogans,” Onek says. “The podcast gets behind the sound bites to have detailed, nuanced conversations about criminal justice policy.” With a firm grasp of criminal justice issues and strong relationships with his guests, Onek believes listeners can “feel like they are eavesdropping on an interesting and candid conversation between two colleagues over a cup of coffee.”

By presenting perspectives and concerns from all corners of the criminal justice arena, Onek hopes to provide a thorough look at key issues—and to shatter a few misconceptions. The podcasts have already seen Kerlikowske tout drug treatment and prevention, Bratton discuss the importance of community policing, and Marshall urge community members to collaborate proactively with law enforcement.

New BCCJ Executive Director Andrea Russi is delighted that the center is co-producing the podcast: “It raises the center’s profile and showcases the relationships we have with many major players in the criminal justice arena.” Now a senior fellow at BCCJ, Onek says that “having started BCCJ and given my heart and soul to it for three-plus years, I am thrilled to be able to continue to contribute to the center’s success.”

The partnership with the Journalism School has allowed Onek to professionally produce the podcast in a high-end studio. The podcast lineup is booked several months ahead, and episodes are available through the Podcast Web site, iTunes, KALW, and even a Facebook fan page.

“David’s innovative podcast fills a void,” Bratton says, “by drilling beneath the surface to bring complex criminal justice issues to light.”

3/17/2010