As California Gov. Gavin Newsom considers who to appoint as attorney general, criminal and racial justice groups are pushing back against Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s pitch for the job, citing his record of being “not only supportive of, but deeply invested in, creating our current system of incarceration.”
Schiff is lobbying Newsom to be appointed as the state’s next attorney general, with help from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as first reported by Axios. The House Intelligence Committee chair rose to national stardom for his role leading former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial.
Early this month, as rumors swirled that Schiff was being considered for the role, 36 criminal and social justice groups wrote an open letter to Newsom expressing their “strong opposition” to Schiff’s appointment. The letter cited Schiff’s record authoring and supporting legislation that would have grown the system of mass incarceration and increased the criminalization of poverty, both as a California state senator from 1996 to 2001 and as a U.S. representative since 2001. Signatories include the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Long Beach chapters, the Anti Police-Terror Project, the California Public Defenders Association, the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area chapter, and Sunrise Movement Los Angeles.
“We are standing at a crossroads of either advancing progressive justice reform or really entrenching systemic and institutional racism, classism, and oppression,” Melinah Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, a professor and former chair of the department of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and one of the signatories, told The Intercept. “And we believe that Adam Schiff represents the latter.”
Jockeying for the seat began after President Joe Biden nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services on December 6. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to hold Becerra’s confirmation hearing in the coming weeks, though a date has not yet been set. He is expected to be confirmed, after which Newsom will announce his pick for attorney general.
The letter focuses on Schiff, whose record trends toward being more tough on crime than most of the other top contenders, but the signatories ask that readers “do not take this as an acceptance of all other potential appointees” and ask Newsom to appoint “someone who has an understanding of the impact of policing and incarceration on people’s lives and on our communities.” Schiff’s office and campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Other contenders for the position include state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, state Sen. Anna Caballero, state Assembly Member Rob Bonta, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton, and Rick Zbur, director of Equality California, a nonprofit civil rights group focused on LGBTQ+ advocacy.
“Many voters heard that message, that we needed serious criminal justice reform, we needed to hold police more accountable than we had been, we needed to be less draconian in our punishment practice.”
After nationwide protests against police brutality last summer, voters in California sent a clear message that they want a new approach to criminal justice and systemic racism, said Jody Armour, a signatory on the letter and the Roy P. Crocker professor of law at the University of Southern California. “Many voters heard that message, that we needed serious criminal justice reform, we needed to hold police more accountable than we had been, we needed to be less draconian in our punishment practice.”
In Los Angeles, Armour noted, reformer George Gascón was elected as district attorney over old-school prosecutor Jackie Lacey in November, and the Los Angeles City Council voted in July to cut the budget of the Los Angeles Police Department by $150 million, largely in response to demands from protesters. That followed Chesa Boudin’s 2019 election as San Francisco district attorney on a decarceral platform.
Over the last decade, California has been a national leader in efforts to reduce mass incarceration, after the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population. The state’s criminal justice system was a focal point of last year’s Democratic presidential primary, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was attorney general from 2011 to 2017, facing criticism for policies that failed to hold police officers accountable for misconduct and overcriminalized poor communities and Black and brown people.
As a state senator, Schiff authored legislation to create the Department of Juvenile Justice to administer prisons for kids; establish “boot camps” for kids who committed certain offenses during school time; make it easier to terminate parental rights for children who were wards of the court; and allow kids age 14 years and up who are “truant or disobedient” and wards of the court to be punished by being held in a secure facility when they aren’t in school.
Schiff also authored bills that would have made it easier to try as adults kids age 14 years or older accused of serious crimes and for the Los Angeles district attorney to prosecute minors. Other measures Schiff introduced would have allowed the fingerprints of minors who had been arrested to be entered into a federal database and would have increased funding for the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program to fund construction of jails and expand funding for law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. The COPS program has long been criticized for funneling billions of dollars to police departments and flooding communities with cops under the banner of promoting community engagement in policing. He also authored a bill that would have made it a felony to hire an undocumented immigrant.
“He was not merely a ‘yes’ vote on bad legislation; he was the author of so many bills that were aimed directly at poor people, Black people, and people of color.”
Some of the bills died in committee, but others were vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, including bills creating the Department of Juvenile Justice and giving courts more power to terminate parental rights.
“In his single term of four years,” the letter reads, “Adam Schiff made increased incarceration and punishment for poor parents the focus of his legislative agenda. He was not merely a ‘yes’ vote on bad legislation; he was the author of so many bills that were aimed directly at poor people, Black people, and people of color.”
Schiff served as a state legislator at a time when the Democratic Party as a whole was pushing a tough-on-crime platform. “People can change,” Armour said, but Schiff continued to support similar policies even after many in the party, most notably President Joe Biden, apologized in early 2019 for the damage those policies wrought on Black and brown communities.
As a member of the House of Representatives, Schiff voted for tough-on-crime measures unpopular even among some Democrats aimed at increasing protections for law enforcement agencies and cracking down on certain forms of protest. Schiff was one of only 48 House Democrats who voted for the Thin Blue Line Act of 2017, which would add killing or targeting a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or other first responder to the list of offenses under consideration for the federal death penalty. Criminal and racial justice groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Education Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights opposed the bill, noting that law enforcement officers already have protection at the federal and state level against such crimes.
Schiff also voted for the Protect and Serve Act of 2019, introduced by former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., which would have created new penalties for crimes that target law enforcement. The bill passed the House with support from 162 Democrats and 220 Republicans and did not advance from the Senate. The same year, Schiff introduced a broad anti-terror bill. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill and said that it would give the attorney general discretion to treat property damage seen during protests last summer as terrorism, The Intercept previously reported. The bill has nine Democratic co-sponsors and has not moved out of committee.
Last year during negotiations over reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, Schiff lobbied to exclude Dreamers and undocumented people from an amendment shielding U.S. Citizens who aren’t suspected of having committed a crime from having their web histories surveilled without a warrant. Civil liberties groups accused Schiff of pushing the exception to impede efforts by other members of Congress to strengthen protections against online surveillance.
Schiff’s recent support for the Thin Blue Line and Protect and Serve acts helped to feed a right-wing narrative that Black Lives Matter and police accountability movements are “somehow lawless and police-hating,” Armour said. “It’s, in other words, a dog whistle that he was contributing to. To put someone like that in this position at this time would be surprising to me. It would be surprisingly politically tone-deaf.”
The attorney general position is particularly important for Los Angeles, said Abdullah of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, especially because the city had, until recently, a tough-on-crime district attorney in Lacey. The group, working with other advocates, has succeeded in bringing the attorney general’s attention to policing issues in their community. In January, Becerra launched a civil rights investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for reports of excessive force, misconduct, and retaliation for whistleblowing. “We don’t think that we would have been able to get Adam Schiff to do that.”