The blue wave that Democrats hope will help them take back control of Congress from the Republicans is not the only battle that will take place during the midterm elections later this year. There is a progressive movement at the local level to reshape the criminal justice system by winning elections for district attorney. By taking control of local prosecutor positions, lawyers and activists focused on reform across the country hope to cut out the mass incarceration middleman and directly target cash bail, harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and police accountability. Two women of color in California are hoping to do just that.
Pamela Price of Alameda County and Geneviéve Jones-Wright of San Diego are running for their local district attorney seats in the upcoming primary election in June. They spoke about their fight against police-endorsed incumbents last week in an interview with Jeremy Scahill on the Intercepted podcast.
Price, who has worked for 27 years as a civil rights lawyer, told Intercepted about her run for office. She has a 10-point platform that addresses issues she intends to tackle as DA. It includes ending mass incarceration, eliminating the death penalty, protecting immigrant communities, holding the police accountable, and reducing gun violence. When asked about her motivation to run in Alameda, she said, “We have a criminal justice system that not only over-criminalizes and decimates black and brown communities, and poor communities, but it has been happening for the entire time that the incumbent has been a part of that office.” Price is challenging District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who has received many endorsements from law enforcement agencies, including from the Alameda Police Officers Association, and the Oakland Police Officers’ Association.
Jones-Wright has been a deputy public defender since 2006 and her campaign promises to break the cycle of crime, provide justice to all victims, and hold the powerful to account. “I will bring a much-needed perspective that the current administration doesn’t have and can’t offer because they are entrenched as prosecutors, and they have a certain mentality that doesn’t take into account the people that they’re actually supposed to represent,” she told Intercepted.
Her opponent, District Attorney Summer Stephan, a registered Republican, has been endorsed by a multitude of local law enforcement associations. “When you talk about her having law enforcement endorsements, that goes to the heart of it,” Jones-Wright said. “We need a district attorney in San Diego County that’s going to represent the people whose names we file complaints in.”
Price and Jones-Wright are each the only challengers to the DA in their respective counties, so come June, if one secures more than 50 percent of the vote, the election will be called.
According to a 2016 report by Fusion, 72 percent of elected prosecutors ran unopposed in their last elections. “The DA makes the decisions on who is charged with what crimes, when, how, and even why … with very, very little oversight,” Jones-Wright explained. A district attorney is the chief prosecutor in a local county, and the position has the power in the community to open or drop a case, decide what level of charges and sentences to demand, and even to decide if a case should be pursued in the first place. Those decisions could range from issues on police accountability in a fatal shooting to how harshly, if at all, to prosecute undocumented immigrants.
“The DA makes the decisions on who is charged with what crimes, when, how, and even why … with very, very little oversight.”
Jones-Wright spoke about ICE crackdowns in San Diego, saying, “We are seeing that immigration agents are taking people off the streets in front of their children while they are crying, simply because they left out of their apartment doors and went to the store, or went to pay rent. This cannot happen.” She believes that the roughly 200,000 undocumented immigrants in the city should be protected community members and that ICE does not have a place in the courthouse.
California currently is embroiled with the Department of Justice led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions over its proclaimed status as a “sanctuary state.” President Donald Trump has gone so far as to threaten to cut federal funding, while the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against California last month over immigration enforcement. It is an escalation by the White House to make the most vulnerable in these communities as intimidated as possible, and they’ve gone after the most progressive state first.
Price, too, said she would stand up to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in her county. “California is a ‘sanctuary state’ and we’re going to require our law enforcement agencies in Alameda County to respect and follow that policy,” she said. “Jeff Sessions may be the attorney general, but in communities across this country, district attorneys are subverting his attempts to keep draconian prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.”
A 2015 report by the San Francisco-based Women Donors Network, and published by the New York Times, found that the racial disparity of prosecutors in the United States was exceptionally white: about 95 percent white in total, and 79 percent white men. Only 1 percent of local and federal district attorneys are women of color, and only 4 percent are men of color. Prosecution decisions are overwhelmingly being decided by white people, and the result is a current prison population in the United States that is decidedly racist when looking at the demographic breakdown: Almost 40 percent of the incarcerated population are black Americans, who make up only around 13 percent of the overall U.S. population.
According to data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, low-income black men have a 52 percent chance of having been behind bars. A progressive DA, however, could choose not to harshly prosecute lower-income families. Price notes, “Most of the people who are charged with something are black or brown people. Most of them cannot afford to post bail. Most of them are ultimately compelled to plead guilty to something.”
Price rattled off statistics that offer a glimpse into the injustice that Alameda County, home to the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, faces. “Black people are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person,” she noted. The latest census shows that 6.5 percent of the state population is black, while according to Price, black people are half of those on parole or probation, and black children are 53 percent of all felony arrests. “The record that we have from the district attorney is that when you are arrested in Alameda County, you have a 93 percent chance of being charged with something.”
The Intercepted podcast has aired episodes related to these issues, including on white supremacy within the National Rifle Association and the racist roots of the Second Amendment, the sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the overt racism shown by the Trump administration. Trump’s latest decision that the U.S. military will be deployed to the border with Mexico until he gets his wall comes on the heels of news that a caravan of Central American migrants is headed to the United States. Extensive Fox News coverage resulted in a panicked presidential meltdown on Twitter the morning of Easter Sunday.
Indeed, Sessions pushed for a substantial shift from Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2013 memo that encouraged prosecutors to take into consideration the defendant’s criminal history and “the needs of the communities we serve, and federal resources and priorities. … We must ensure our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious high-level or violent drug traffickers.” Holder even wrote, “Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
But the 2017 Sessions memo appears to rescind all previous policy and pushed for harsher sentencing: “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
Sessions doubled down on his May 2017 memo with a speech to the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, where he said of prosecutors, “They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”
Even after Black Lives Matter protests demanding police accountability swept the country for years following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Los Angeles Times reported that even as 2015 saw an increase in nationwide charges of officers for murder and manslaughter, “such prosecutions remain almost unheard of in six Southern California counties — Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial — where there has been a police shooting roughly every other day since 2004, records show.”
Jones-Wright talked about the lack of accountability that has become evident in San Diego: “We have not had a district attorney here who was willing to take the first step in asking the necessary questions in investigations, and to stand and say, ‘I will hold everyone accountable under the law, even when you wear a badge.’ So, unfortunately, even after 2015, we’ve seen more officer-involved shootings here in San Diego. They haven’t stopped.”
Jones-Wright sounded incensed when she spoke about the failure to prosecute in a fatal shooting case last year. Jonathan Coronel, a 24-year-old, was shot 22 times in San Diego. “Mr. Coronel was lying prone on his stomach when he was shot. He was unarmed,” she said. The officer, who had been involved in a prior fatal shooting, was found justified in his actions last month. “So, the very first step is we need someone in the DA’s office who’s willing to hold officers accountable. We have to have that desire.”
Price said that O’Malley accepted a campaign donation of $10,000 from the Fremont police union while the office was investigating two different fatal shooting cases last year, the East Bay Times reported. “I will hold bad cops accountable for bad acts,” Price said. The current DA’s office cleared all three officers involved. One officer under investigation, Sgt. Jeremy Miskella, is the president of the police union. Price has condemned this donation as a conflict of interest in previous interviews. She told Scahill, “We have a tremendous disconnect between what justice should look like and what ethical conduct should look like in our relationship with local law enforcement.” O’Malley was first appointed in 2009 and was re-elected unopposed in 2010 and again in 2014. “We have found that this is a community that is desperate for police accountability,” Price concluded.
To date, more than 300 people have been killed by police this year, according to the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” — a scandal that has receded from national media attention. By contrast, a Mother Jones data set reveals that this year, 24 people have been killed in mass shootings — as defined as three or more dead in one incident. Price’s words could apply on a larger scale: We are a country desperate for police accountability.
These two women, if successful, may follow the example of recently elected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has implemented what Shaun King called a “revolutionary memo” that is actually being enforced. Prosecutors have real power in the community and the ability to reform — if they can achieve in office what they campaigned on.
When asked what she would do if officers did not abide her decisions as district attorney, Price responded with gusto. “Bring it on. I’m ready,” she said. “This county has voted overwhelmingly for criminal justice reform … so I am prepared to, if necessary, do battle with officers who do not respect the law.”
Correction: April 12, 2018
An earlier version of this story incorrectly linked California’s 2010 open primary measure to county elections for district attorney, for which the measure does not apply. The reference has been removed.