Progress Is Occurring on Prosecutorial Reform, Despite Tuesday’s Setbacks in California

On Tuesday in California, most of the progressive candidates for district attorney lost primary elections against incumbents. These defeats led some to conclude that voters had “rejected reform” or that the movement had “stumbled.” Those results, however, don’t fully reflect the strength of the prosecutorial reform movement. 

For decades, district attorneys, who have enormous power in the justice system, have been running largely unopposed in California and across the nation. On Tuesday, more California voters in more counties than ever had real choices in district attorney races. In 2010, only 18 of California’s 56 district attorney seats were contested.  In 2014, that number jumped to 25, and this year, to 26. 

Not only has the number of contested races increased, the nature of those races shifted dramatically this year. While "contested" district attorney races in prior years most often involved establishment candidates running to defend the status quo, in 2018 many contests included candidates who embraced reform platforms -- including more candidates who are women of color. 

Take Pamela Price, a civil rights attorney, who ran for district attorney for Alameda County, California.  She explicitly acknowledged that prosecutors have played a key role in creating mass incarceration and outlined a specific plan to reduce it.  She won 40 percent of the vote. Though she failed to win her primary election, her showing was a remarkable  considering that elected prosecutors have traditionally run on aggressive “tough on crime” platforms. 

After seeing significant gains for reform-minded district attorney candidates in places like Texas earlier this year and Larry Krasner lead reforms as D.A. in Philadelphia, it was tempting to believe that the movement could win the day everywhere. But as we saw on Tuesday, the power of incumbency is strong. This fight was never going to be won in one election cycle. 

The ACLU began its district attorney voter education campaign in California in 2010. Our project expanded significantly in 2014 when the ACLU launched its “They Report to You” campaign that provided voters with extensive educational materials, polling place information, and other tools. This year, the ACLU led statewide voter education efforts and supported local partners in nine California counties to contact voters and put district attorneys on the record. Over the last few months, the ACLU and its partners in California hosted many candidate forums and reached hundreds of thousands of voters through social media to educate them about district attorneys. Field organizers who had prior criminal justice experience reached more than 135,000 people through phone calls and home visits. 

These voters very likely knew little or nothing about district attorneys before this educational campaign. It's common for people casting ballots to skip local races like district attorney. The early analysis shows that among our target counties, there was an average increase of 10 percentage points in people voting for a D.A. candidate, and an increase of up to 20 percent in Alameda and San Diego counties. Most importantly, these newly educated voters can now be engaged to hold district attorneys accountable between now and 2022, using tools like the ACLU’s policy toolkit

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is supporting similar voter education work in about 40 other district attorney races in 15 states around the country. The effort is part of a national prosecutorial reform campaign, which combines these strategies with legislative reforms and litigation to change the incentives for prosecutors.Mass incarceration is the result, in part, of decades of unchecked impunity for district attorneys.

The elections in California this week show that over just the last few years, we’ve made real progress in empowering communities and building up local organizations and activists that will ultimately put an end to America’s addiction to incarceration. 

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Dr. Timothy Leary

I would like to be a District Attorney. It's one job where you can be completely obnoxious, and ii's expected of you.

Anonymous

So, you are trying to blur the line between District Attorney and Judge, now? And/or District Attorney and Congressional lawmakers? District Attorney's do not rule on guilt or inncence and they don't get to decide on sentences. They just argue the State's side in court. after the arguments, the judge or jury decides on guilt or innocence and the judge decides on the sentence based on the laws written by Congress. If you don't like the sentences then petition Congress to change the laws.

Anonymous

What you don’t realize is that DAs over charge and then give plea bargains. No one is going to risk going to jail for 20 years when tbey have a one bargain for 6. It’s too risky and it’s exactly why innocent people take the plea.

Anonymous

i think it would be really good if the DA would do that. THey have one job...

Anonymous

After a recent experience a family member had with a judge that was a former prosecutor, who allowed the DA to give a much harsher than normal sentence to a 21 year old kid, I will NEVER vote for a former prosecutor in any legal capacity again. DAs hold terrible power over the legal system these days. They overcharge and no one is going to go to trial and risk a 30 year sentence when they can take a 15 year plea bargain. This happened in our case and no one even got hurt.

Civil Advocate

This is serious abuse by government employees ! Wait till your turn comes around... I have spent over three years analyzing civil and criminal court cases in different districts to discover: STATE HOSTILITY, AGGRESSIVE ABUSIVE ABHORRENT ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR = BORDERLINE CRIMINALLY ADMINISTERED DECISIONS BY STATE ATTORNEYS -- Specifically most State Prosecutors get away with legalized torture of the innocent and the guilty in order to profit from the suffering of state induced victims, while also harming family members. The system of justice is a mockery against what true justice is.

The current system is blindly supported by the masses who do not know the truth of what is going on.
This is ultimate power and control in theory turned rogue where the criminal fundamentals in power are state criminals who act with immunity to justice at their leisure every day while they violate the constitution with tactics they use to win their cases, irrespective whether the state is wrongfully charging the innocent or the guilty, state prosecutors embellish every opportunity to attack the suspected and accused even going as far to fabricate evidence in order to win. If you want power to practice in a dictatorship, become a district attorney and you will be acting on behalf of the state with the entire police and sheriff system to back you up.

The state directly supports problematic and offensive prosecutors, their associates and the judges by not regulating internal misconduct committed by officials who are hell bent on winning at their discretion, dictating their abusive process that harms the innocent more than the guilty, damages lives and even destroys some people in the the name of justice.

Persons running this system have a mindset of these nasty character types who are either Narcissists, Psychopaths, Machiavellian's, and these types of Prosecutors are criminal to the T. In theory of judgment of their misbehavior with their violation of rules of ethics, justice permits crimes in disguise of the law. The guilty should have a taste of their own medicine, and it should be force fed to them every time they choke on it while in prison. When you or if you ever discover the truth as I have from becoming a victim you will accept my message as fact.

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