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
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
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Lori Saldana says
This month, the federal Department of Justice released new standards & best practices for investigating sexual assaults and supporting survivors of these crimes.
According to EndtheBacklog.org:
“Now, for the first time, the federal government has unambiguously declared that testing every rape kit connected to a reported crime is a best practice. Testing all kits is victim-centered, trauma-informed, and promotes public safety. Many communities across the country are already doing this; others are working towards it. This guidance bolsters their efforts.”
San Diego city & county crime labs have 1000s of backlogged kits. The 2017 city budget allocated $500K to clear the backlog, which often result in solving cold cases going back many years.
Both DA candidate Geneviéve L. Jones-Wright and Sheriff candidate David Myers SUPPORT 100% testing.
Current Sheriff Bill Gore and Interim DA Summer Stephan OPPOSE testing all of these kits.
Let’s see if the new federal standards change their public opposition.
bob dorn says
When has a District Attorney brought a criminal case against a well-known corporation here? Anyone?
Michael K Rohde says
I worked in criminal justice during the tenure of Ed Miller as a private investigator specializing in homicides. I remember dumanis from those days when she was a young assistant, in fact I think she may have had a beer with the lawyers I worked for at Soledad Francos, the default court house bar in those days. She wasn’t really registering on the star search just yet but she was on her way, I think she was into sex crimes during my time.
I left here and went to Texas and started doing death penalty cases because a lot of murders got filed as capital cases because it gave prosecutors the ear of the local media and during election years candidates were often front page news while trying a capital murder case. We were provided minimum resources but fought the good fight and kept more than a few people off of death row that didn’t belong there. It was interesting work. I never realized the political side of it until then.
I was shocked to learn during that time that blacks were not routinely sentenced more often than whites in Texas and across the South. Except when it came to white on black crime. That was different. The people north of the Mason Dixon line were sending blacks to prison at a much higher rate and much longer sentences. That really shocked me.
I struck up a friendship with a detective on the local police force, we had beers after work once in a while and of course discussed our jobs. I learned a lot from that cop, especially how much influence the local prosecutor wielded with the police. If the prosecutor doesn’t file the case, there is no case. He had the key to the door. Prosecutors routinely asked the police to focus their resources on certain parts of town to publicize a perceived problem and create media interest to bolster their campaigns for election. They didn’t focus their resources in the zip codes that their contributors lived in. Hell of a system.
Here in California I think the ratio of blacks in the system is 4-5 times that of whites in prison and for Latin Americans close to the same. These people are largely poor and under educated, broken homes, everyone knows the formula. And they end up in prison. How is it that even though there are more poor whites they do not suffer the same incarceration rate?
The prosecutors and police have all the influence here simply by deciding what neighborhood they are going to operate in and focus their resources. Even though we know the white kids use drugs at a higher rate, they have the money to buy them, they target children of color in this drug war. That more than any single reason is why so many more kids of color end up in the system. It is a choice made by our public officials that control the police and criminal courts. It is not an accident. Ever hear of a drug sweep at La Jolla High? And those kids use at a higher rate than their poor counterparts. They can afford it.
I don’t believe that the police chief and DA wake up and say we have to lock up more blacks and mexicans. They wake up and say how can I succeed and have a better life? Would it be busting north side white kids in La Jolla for marijauana or black kids in Logan Heights? I suspect we all know how they answer that question over their morning coffee.
Every time an American politician raises the issue of human rights with a foreign nation or leader, they laugh a little, maybe inside so as not to offend, but it is a joke to them how we preach human rights and lock up 1 out of 3 black boys. And they are boys because of their age, teen agers, not their race. I haven’t looked at the numbers lately, but I think California and San Diego still reflect these disparate outcomes. Maybe there has been some marginal improvement but I can’t believe I would have missed that story because it would be front page. If you cannot find bias in that system, we define bias differently.
Government is not business, it shouldn’t be run like a business because it is not designed to make a profit. It is designed to benefit every citizen, not just those with enough disposable income to contribute to campaigns. When Logan Heights and the Barrio contribute as much money to the DA we would probably see these numbers change. But that isn’t supposed to be how it works. Those number don’t lie.
When you deploy government resources and you achieve a certain result that is troubling, then maybe you redeploy those resources and see what happens. As a nation we incarcerate almost as many as Joseph Stalin did in his hey day. And it is poor people of color that pay the heaviest price. And it is because people make decisions in our government that drives these outcomes. It isn’t rocket science. And it isn’t an accident.
bob dorn says
If only a reporter could have written this for the LA Times/Union Tribune. The only thing I could add is the astounding reversal on opium use in Appalachia, where the predominantly white addicts are gaining therapy programs that replace automatic jailings. It took some po’ whites getting high on prescription painkillers to accomplish a more just approach to widespread misery and poverty.
I’d bet the Free Press would welcome a rewrite of your view of things and give it more prominent display.
Michael K Rohde says
I don’t know what the free press is but thanks for the note. It is something well known in law enforcement, but then they don’t usually disclose information without a subpena dueces tecum. Thanks again.
Shawn VanDiver says
I was the democrat claiming she is progressive and shopping the oped around. Because evidence is important. I also question the objectivity of the SDFP on this issue. I am a well established democrat having fought time and again for progressive causes. Why doesn’t my voice matter?
If being aligned with Gil Cabrera, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, Congressman Juan Vargas, Deborah Dixon, and more is wrong then I will stay wrong.
Summer Stephan has put bad guys in jail, her opponents job is to make sure that her client doesn’t go to jail, regardless of guilt or innocence.
She also wants to put a stop to mass incarceration. Look at her work on the veterans treatment court, human trafficking issues, and diversion programs countywide and tell me she’s not progressive.
Both jobs are important. I want the top prosecutor in our county to be experienced AND compassionate. Summer is both and so much more.
Let’s not forget that justice counts for victims too, not just the accused.
Doug Porter says
On what planet did you hear the San Diego Free Press is objective? Best laugh I’ve had all morning.
We disagree on your candidate. I disagree with all the good people you listed. I see absolutely no evidence she will be any different than Bonnie Dumanis.
Frank Stallone says
Elliott and Vargas are the only really notable Democratic endorsements Stephan has, and given they lent their names early on before there was a legitimately progressive option in the race, I doubt they’ll be very proactive about pushing her candidacy.
The handful of other “Dems” are the usual SD chummy crowd and wannabes, betting on the conventional wisdom that they stand to be in with the likely winner, but as usual they’re blind to currents outside the dinner party echo chamber. I mean for crying out loud, can you imagine a worse time to be trying to cross party lines than the first Trump midterm? Since they’re not with Stephan for any ideological reasons – none have even made an attempt to argue that – it’ll be interesting to see how many jump ship or downplay their involvement if big outside money comes into play and things like her horrific handling of the Crowe case gets lots of TV time. Could turn into rats on a sinking ship quick.