The 2018 electoral contests with the most immediate impact on San Diego will take place in June, not November. All of them involve countywide positions– Assessor, Sheriff, and District Attorney.
The race between Geneviéve Jones-Wright and Summer Stephan for DA is about enacting meaningful policies protecting our communities, sans the current double standard for what constitutes justice.
There is, as former prosecutor-turned innocence lawyer Mark Godsey pointed out in a recent interview, “a huge disconnect between what the public thinks about our criminal justice system and the reality of it.”
This lack of understanding goes beyond having confidence those charged with crimes are actually guilty into the realm of politics. In San Diego, certain constituencies are protected, while others get a ham-handed version of what passes for justice.
On a micro level, the current District Attorney’s policies enable a broken police culture placing the police first, not the victims, the defendants — or justice.
One need look no further than the case of Tony Diaz—a homeless man whose conviction for a misdemeanor violation was overturned when body cam evidence surfaced proving the arresting officer lied under oath about the circumstances leading to the arrest.
The earlier actions of the San Diego police officer in question, Colin Governski, led to a $15,000 settlement by the City to settle a harassment lawsuit filed by homeless human Zack Green.
Governski was subsequently transferred out of the so-called SDPD quality of life team and an ‘internal investigation’ was initiated. Three months have passed and charges have yet to be filed by the DA’s office… it must be one hell of a complicated investigation… or… some people are more equal than others when it comes to the administration of justice.
Looking at the bigger picture, District Attorneys exercise discretion over who to charge and with what crime, and determine whether and when to seek the harshest punishments available under law—like the death penalty or life without parole. They also make choices about who gets into diversion programs.
On a statewide level, the current batch of DAs has worked to oppose reforms in California’s criminal justice system that have been overwhelmingly approved by voters.
From the Nation:
In California, for example, prosecutors sued last year to prevent Proposition 57—a suite of progressive changes to the state’s criminal law, including reduced sentences—from moving forward. The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) argued that Governor Jerry Brown violated a recently enacted law requiring a new comment period after substantial revisions. (“It’s perplexing why these DAs would deny the people of California their right to vote on this important public safety measure,” Brown said in response.) Proposition 57 is designed to decrease the state’s prison population by making more criminal charges punishable by serving time in county jail and by offering some long-serving inmates the chance to make parole earlier. The law, which voters overwhelmingly approved last November, also eliminates giving prosecutors the power to send juvenile offenders directly to adult court.
The CDAA has long opposed legislation that would result in lesser penalties, going back to the change in California’s draconian “three strikes”law in 2012. Since the passage of Proposition 57 and other laws like it, the fearmongering has reached a fever pitch, with prosecutors asserting that reducing the sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crimes would result in communities being inundated by the homeless and drug-addicted.
In the coming year, a coalition including police officers and prosecutors is pushing for a California state initiative reversing some elements of Proposition 47, which was approved by voters in 2014 and reduced some crimes deemed nonviolent from a felony to a misdemeanor.
On a national level, the Trump administration is returning to the path of maximum charges and mandatory incarceration.
Despite claims from the executive branch of a massive crime wave, the reality is that crime rates are at near-historic lows. In San Diego, you have to go back to 1970 (when the population was half its present size) to find a similar number of arrests to 2016.
Summer Stephan’s appointment as interim DA is just the latest in a series of successions in County government whereby retiring office holders select their replacements. The Board of Supervisors ratifies the selection, thereby granting incumbent status to the interim office holder.
The issue with San Diego County’s District Attorney and the criminal justice system nationally is ending the mistaken practice of trying to incarcerate our way out of crime. It is local prosecutors who drive mass incarceration, and it is local prosecutors who can end it.
There are some types of crimes the County District Attorney has been unable or unwilling to prosecute, namely those like to infringe on the local (partisan) political establishment.
Stephan has inherited a highly politicized office, as a prosecutor who quit not long after Bonnie Dumanis took office once described it:
In a short period of time it became apparent she was using the office for her own political gain and not the public good. I retired rather than watch her destroy a great office and she has continued to abuse the office for her own personal benefit.
Dumanis left office earlier this spring with a legacy of what I’ll generously call poor choices. Here a just a few:
- Making it obvious that hell would freeze over before any law enforcement officer’s body cam evidence would ever be used in an excessive force/manslaughter prosecution.
- The prosecution of medical marijuana advocates and suppliers. She repeatedly lost in those cases when they went before a jury.
- And who could forget James Slatic, whose children’s bank accounts (along with other assets) were seized and held for over a year, with no charges filed. Two weeks after a judge ordered the monies returned Dumanis charged him with fifteen felonies. He eventually pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges, rather than continue battling in court.
- While Slatic’s deal was attributed to the “changing focus of the new District Attorney administration, which allows companies to apply for a state license to legally sell marijuana,” his attorney Jessica McElfresh hasn’t been so fortunate. Her emails to all her clients were seized as part of a prosecution claim she abetted a crime.
- Her attempt to use the state’s gang laws to prosecute a local rapper and a college student on conspiracy charges based on Facebook posts and song lyrics. Thankfully, the charges were dismissed by a San Diego Superior Court judge.
- The relationship between Dumanis and Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano Matsura. Most recently his attorneys filed papers saying Dumanis knew he was a foreign citizen and legally barred from funding her 2012 mayoral campaign, yet sought his money anyway.
One sign that things are unlikely to change is the passing of the buck on San Diego Councilman Chris Cate’s decision to leak a confidential memo potentially undermining the city’s position on negotiations concerning the fate of the land now occupied by a stadium in Mission Valley.
While the decision to refer the case to the State Attorney General was attributed to a desire to ensure public trust, I can guarantee Cate’s position as a rising star in the GOP had something to do with the matter.
As I said about her predecessor, Stephan is now the keeper of the flame for the established interests that have long dominated San Diego politics.
Challenging the status quo isn’t going to be easy for native San Diegan Geneviéve Jones-Wright. But, then again, easy isn’t part of her makeup, as I learned when I sat down with her recently.
She decided on her life path in fourth grade, choosing to follow in the footsteps of Justice Thurgood Marshall to use the law to help those who are vulnerable and oppressed. That path included attending Howard Law School. Jones-Wright has worked as a public defender in San Diego since 2006.
Her commitment to justice extends beyond the courtroom to the City of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, being a volunteer attorney for the California Innocence Project, and an appointment to the State Bar of California’s Council on Access and Fairness.
The first public notice of her candidacy came via Andrew Keatts in Voice of San Diego article that included a chilling tale of an encounter with the San Diego police department.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright was driving home from Mission Beach last year when an SDPD officer began to follow her back to southeastern San Diego, where she was raised and lives today.
She pulled over in front of the Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park — where she earlier in the day had taught Lincoln High’s mock trial students. Officers with guns drawn told her to exit the vehicle. A crowd gathered. Officers put Jones-Wright in handcuffs in the back of their car while drug dogs searched her car. Officers soon determined an error at the DMV had led them to believe her car was stolen. She was sent on her way.
The video Jones-Wright made of the experience shows she knew better than to buy into the “DMV error” story, especially given the SDSU study revealing –among other things– African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders are stopped more than their white counterparts while driving, even though they are less likely to have contraband.
The city’s establishment fought even the generally bland conclusions in the study, postponing presentations to the City Council, urging changes in the final report softening its conclusions, and then essentially shelving the matter following promises by the police chief things would be better in the future.
In our interview, Jones-Wright politely reminded me the ‘cone of silence’ on this issue extends to the current interim DA as she ran down a quick list of other issues needing to be addressed:
The school-to-prison pipeline is in full effect locally, affecting more students of color and poorer students than any other population. Our local jails are being used to fix the housing crisis that county and city leaders have failed to address over the last several years. As a result, our homeless community members are targeted by law enforcement and are being arrested for simply existing within our county limits.
As a county we have more than 2500 untested rape kits sitting on the shelves of our crime labs. And between 2005 and 2015, there have been 155 officer-involved shootings; all were determined to be justified by our District Attorney’s office.
At the press conference announcing her candidacy, the Times of San Diego quoted her saying:
“People who see the need for a criminal justice system that is informed by scientific research into the human condition, people who understand that mass incarceration is as expensive as it is inhumane.”
“For far too long, we San Diegans have been at the whim of prosecutors who care more about headlines and political points than seeking justice — this ends now, San Diego,”
The electoral contest for County District Attorney needs to be viewed in the context of voter enthusiasm for progressive reformers in other parts of the United States.
Last month, Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly elected Larry Krasner to be district attorney. He ran on a platform of change, as described in The Root:
Krasner has decided to use his prosecutorial discretion in unprecedented ways. He promised to never ask for cash bail for a nonviolent offender, which is perfectly legal and up to the prosecutor’s office. Cash bail has long been derided as a for-profit system that penalizes poor people before they are convicted of a crime.
Krasner also vowed to curb police corruption by prosecuting cops with as much zeal as the criminal-justice system targets others. His platform states that he will not prosecute cases where the police are abusive, and the new DA also vowed that he will end the illegal stop-and-frisk program by “refusing to bring to trial cases stemming from illegal frisks and searches.”
The new prosecutor says that he will no longer seek the death penalty; nor will he seize any defendant’s assets until after a conviction has been made. Krasner also plans to steer cases of drug possession and nonviolent offenses toward treatment programs, and he says that he will seek to end the drug war by treating drug use as a medical problem.
A recent Nation profile on prosecutors moving toward reform included a mention about the candidacy of Geneviéve Jones-Wright, along with Orlando’s Aramis Ayala, Mississippi’s Scott Colom, and Chicago’s Kim Foxx.
Many of these newly elected prosecutors, like Ayala, who are seeking to bring reform to red and purple states, are pushing back against the death penalty. Back in February, the New York Times editorial board hailed this as progress, describing these DAs as a “wiser generation of prosecutors.” There’s James Stewart, who according to The Christian Science Monitor, has “quietly” avoided the death penalty in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Denver’s first female prosecutor, Beth McCann, who took office in January, has sworn not to pursue death-penalty cases. Kim Ogg in Houston, Texas, also ran on an anti–death penalty platform and won. But when it comes to being tough on police, and other criminal-justice reforms, there are big question marks. Different cities call for different kinds of reform, and, as Trump continues to impose his agenda, the needs of every county will come into clearer focus.
It is too soon to tell whether these reform prosecutors will deliver, but one thing is not in question: Many voters are no longer interested in the “tough on crime” stances of the past.
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