One San Diego electoral contest in 2018 has national implications and doesn’t involve petulant Republican Congressmen hoping to avoid the Trump taint at the ballot box– County District Attorney.
Even as California voters have repeatedly favored criminal justice reforms at the ballot box in recent years, the state’s bloc of DAs has obstructed, obfuscated, and delayed those reforms.
Elected and nearly always re-elected with financial support from the likes of bail bond companies, correctional employee and police unions–which have funded opposition to reforms–, the state’s 58 County District Attorneys remain the least scrutinized players in the criminal justice system.
In a July 2017 article focusing on prosecutors who are challenging the status quo, the Christian Science Monitor points out:
Perhaps no one in the US is more important to dispensing justice than a prosecutor. Indeed, Robert Jackson, a Supreme Court justice in the 1940s and early ’50s, said a prosecutor “has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”
Prosecutors control the two most important decisions in the criminal justice process, experts say: levying charges and negotiating plea bargains, which is how some 95 percent of all court cases are resolved. As Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Texas’ Harris County, puts it: Prosecutors “hold the key to the front door of the courthouse and the back door of the jail.”
The standard for getting elected as a District Attorney is a simple one: Tough on Crime. It’s a trope usually defined by masculinity and race.
In an article describing how the tough-on-crime stances needed to get elected as a top prosecutor has the effect of multiplying racial injustices, reporters Kate Stohr and Deirdra Funcheon at Fusion make the case:
Even as race and justice issues dominate national headlines, few media outlets have focused on the formidable power prosecutors wield. But they should. Of the 2,437 elected prosecutors in America (at both the both federal and county levels), 79 percent were white men — even though white men made up only 31 percent of the population, according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Women Donors Network. That disparity, the report said, is a “structural flaw in the justice system” that has cascading effects — like reducing accountability for police officers who shoot unarmed minorities.
So in one sense, the fact of San Diego having two women running for County District Attorney, seems like an outlier… until you look a little closer. I’ll dig deeper into appointed incumbent DA Summer Stephan and challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright as the year progresses.
The point to be made here is that Stephan is the candidate of the status quo. Just as her predecessor Bonnie Dumanis was the keeper of the flame in terms of protecting entrenched interests, the process of selecting Stephan leaves little doubt about where her allegiances lie.
When Dumanis resigned there was a concerted effort to have an interim DA appointed who would pledge not to run for office. A coalition of groups headed by the American Civil Liberties Union took out a full page ad in the Union-Tribune arguing against giving any appointee the power of incumbency.
The County Supervisors awarded the job to Stephan–who had already declared she was running in 2018– and that was that. As I wrote back in July:
This ‘process’ thus far is remarkably similar to what happened when former Sheriff Kolender resigned in 2009 before the end of his term. Sheriff Bill Gore — who has also endorsed Stephan — was appointed and ran as the incumbent in 2010.
When county Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard announced plans to resign at a 2012 board meeting, supervisors immediately selected his assistant, Helen Robbins-Meyer, as his successor. They had no problem suspending the rules to take action by declaring the selection of a replacement to be an ‘urgent item.’
The support lining up behind Summer Stephan is also a good indicator of what she represents. Faulconer consultant and architect of the campaign against raising the minimum wage Jason Roe is running her campaign.
There are even a handful of Democrats supporting her. Earlier this year one of them even shopped an op-ed with San Diego Free Press claiming Summer Stephan was a progressive.
As it says in all caps at the top of each page on her campaign website, she’s LAW ENFORCEMENT’S CHOICE FOR DISTRICT ATTORNEY.
Needless to say, we haven’t seen indications Stephan is willing substantively to part ways with Bonnie Dumanis, whose tenure included opposing reforms like Proposition 36, (2012, California’s fix for “three strikes and you’re out”) Proposition 47, (2014, changed some misdemeanors to felonies) and Proposition 64 (2016, Legalized recreational marijuana).
Dumanis even went so far as arguing in court that Prop 47 did not apply to juveniles. She did not prevail, just as she did not with her attempts to jail Tiny Doo and student Aaron Harvey for song lyrics she claimed were supportive of gang crimes, and numerous cases involving medical marijuana.
The District Attorney’s office under Stephan is continuing to prosecute –and claiming the rights to confidential emails protected by attorney-client privilege– cannabis attorney, Jessica McElfresh who has represented several of the newly-licensed collectives under the city’s ordinance.
Fortunately for San Diegans, advocates of criminal justice reform are focusing their attentions on district attorney races around the nation as the next big political battleground in the struggle to fix America’s broken system. Victories by reformers in places like Chicago and Philadelphia offer hope for changing a political culture that, until now, only rewarded tough-on-crime elected prosecutors.
The ACLU has launched an important campaign called Meet Your District Attorney.
“District attorneys are among the most powerful elected officials in local government,” said Ana Zamora, the ACLU of Northern California’s Criminal Justice Policy Director. “The decisions they make impact the lives of millions of people, including families and entire communities.”
Through an interactive website, California residents can use their zip code to look up their local DA, read their profile, and email their DA directly. Visitors can also keep track of where their district attorney stands on important criminal justice reform issues in California.
“Many Californians may not know who their DA is or the role they play in the complicated ecosystem of the criminal justice system,” Zamora said. “We want to change this dynamic and it starts with introducing them to their locally elected DA.”
The electoral contest for District Attorney in San Diego will no doubt attract the interests of groups affiliated with Democratic mega-donor George Soros, who has backed campaigns for criminal justice reform and easing drug laws.
A 2016 article in Politico describes Soro’s involvement:
His money has supported African-American and Hispanic candidates for these powerful local roles, all of whom ran on platforms sharing major goals of Soros’, like reducing racial disparities in sentencing and directing some drug offenders to diversion programs instead of to trial. It is by far the most tangible action in a progressive push to find, prepare and finance criminal justice reform-oriented candidates for jobs that have been held by longtime incumbents and serve as pipelines to the federal courts — and it has inspired fury among opponents angry about the outside influence in local elections.
This fury is already finding its way into the 2018 San Diego DA contest, with the first listing under ‘news’ at Summer Stephan’s campaign site being an article about Soros from the far right Free Beacon website.
The article features a quote from a Republican DA candidate saying “she does not want her city to turn into Baltimore or Chicago if her opponent were to be elected.”
Trust me, the tin foil hat set is gonna have a field day with this one. One local law enforcement-friendly twitter account has already branded Stephan’s opponent (who is a public defender) as a “cop hater.”
They’d like you to worry about the right’s “boogie man” more than considering the possibility of criminal justice programs including the concept of “justice for all.”
Keep your eyes on the prize, folks. With a progressive candidate (Dave Myers) also running for County Sheriff, the possibilities for change are very real.
The United States has more prisoners, at over 2.2 million inmates, than China, India and the United Kingdom combined. pic.twitter.com/Yz6gxFyXoZ
— The Spectator Index (@spectatorindex) August 31, 2017
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