President's Message — April 2019

By Jeff Van Wagenen

Last week, I had a meeting at the Public Defender’s "new" office on Main Street. (Although to me, it will always be the "Old District Attorney’s Office.") On my way to the meeting, I walked past the Robert Presley Detention Center and the Robert Presley Hall of Justice. I started wondering about the career of an individual whose accomplishments were so significant that they warranted not only the naming of two buildings, but also the Robert Presley Institute of Criminal Investigation for Advanced Investigators and the Robert Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

After serving in the Army during World War II, earning a Bronze Star for heroism, Robert Presley moved to Riverside and began a career in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. He worked as a line level law enforcement officer, concurrently pursuing his education. He quickly worked his way up the ranks from patrol deputy to homicide detective, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. His promotion to criminal division chief deputy soon paved the way for his appointment as undersheriff, the department’s "number two" – a position he held for twelve years. His retirement after 24 years was short lived. In fact, he was just getting started …

In 1974, Robert Presley was elected to the California State Senate. During his twenty years in the Senate, Senator Presley gained a reputation for his bi-partisanship and work ethic. His legislative initiatives ranged from wildlife conservation to clean air to education reform and many other quality-of-life issues. However, his top priority and longtime commitment was always to improve and reform California’s correctional system and its law enforcement profession, while remaining focused on overall criminal justice reform. After another short-lived semi-retirement, Senator Presley was appointed by Governor Davis to serve as the chairman of the California Offender Parole Board and Secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency from 1999-2003.

Senator Presley died in 2018 at the age of 94.

On May 9, 2019, the University of California, Riverside (UCR) School of Public Policy and the Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies at UCR are convening a daylong tribute to Senator Presley, with the help of the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the County Board of Supervisors. During the day, two separate symposia on emerging issues in criminal justice will be held in downtown Riverside, highlighting the policy impact Senator Presley had on criminal justice reform in the state. The day will culminate with the Senator Robert Presley Tribute Dinner at 5:30 p.m. at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts. (If you are interested in attending (or sponsoring the event), please email Jennifer.Kelsheimer@ucr.edu or call 951-827-5564. The proceeds from the event will benefit the Senator Robert Presley Scholarship Fund to support UCR students who participate in academic pursuit that continues the legacies of Senator Presley.)

This deep dive on Robert Presley made me think about the other legal legends memorialized in various ways in our community.

When we walk through the John Gabbert Judicial Plaza, do we think about the prosecutor who left the District Attorney’s Office in 1938, to join a father and son duo to form the law firm of Best, Best & Gabbert? Do we think about his appointment by Governor Earl Warren to be a judge of the Riverside County Superior Court, a position he held for 21 years, before Governor Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Appellate Court? Do we wonder what our community would be like if he did not lead the charge to bring the University of California to Riverside?

When we go by the Victor Miceli Law Library, do we pause and remember the man who transformed our legal community literally and figuratively by his dedicated efforts to bring a federal courthouse and bankruptcy court to Riverside, to relocate the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Two, from San Bernardino to Riverside, and to restore the Riverside Historic Courthouse? In describing Judge Miceli, Justice Gabbert had remarked, There is not a soul I can think of in my lifetime here that did more for the Riverside community in a constructive way than he did. His contributions have just been beyond measure.

You may be asking yourself, how any of this relates to this month’s topic of "Children and the Law?" During trip through history, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s, Teach Your Children Well, has been playing in my head. I know it is a stretch (at best), but the lyrics are resonating. We need to constantly remind ourselves, and those who follow us, about those who came before. We need to think of them not as landmarks, but rather as people. We need to understand what they went through, so as to give what we go through greater context and perspective. And, we need to constantly strive to live up to the examples they set.


Jeff Van Wagenen is the Assistant County Executive Officer for Public Safety, working with, among others, the District Attorney’s Office, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, and the Courts.

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