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Two races for Bay Area top prosecutors reflect push for criminal justice reform

Political commentators focused on San Francisco’s recall in the District Attorney office, but progressive candidates earned significant support for DA positions in two counties across San Francisco Bay.

 OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The East Bay saw two primary races for district attorney reflect voters’ preference toward progressive prosecutors promising to reform criminal justice practices.

Amid the confirmed recall of San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a 60-40 split, just across San Francisco Bay, voters signaled robust favor for reform-minded candidates in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

While national media was quick to question whether Boudin’s removal reflected a swing back from criminal justice reform, local researchers pointed to progressive candidates’ success elsewhere to demonstrate that the state’s voters still want to see reform and accountability for state and local agencies.

In Alameda County’s DA race, as of Friday nationally recognized civil rights attorney Pamela Price — who ran against incumbent Nancy O’Malley in 2018 — got 40% of the vote among four candidates. Terry Wiley, the incumbent’s chief assistant DA, earned 29.5%.

Pamela Price speaks with a microphone wearing a mask.
Pamela Price campaigned in 2022 for District Attorney in Alameda County and took the majority of votes in the June primary election in California. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Price for DA)

Price, a former criminal defense attorney and defender with a firm in Oakland, represents a turn for more progressive leadership of the county’s criminal justice system, framing her campaign against the DA’s establishment and traditional “tough on crime” policies. Endorsed by Oakland Rising and activists like Angela Davis and Susan Burton, she has campaigned since 2018 to tackle racial disparity in prosecutions and end mass incarceration of people of color, and wants to stop prosecuting children as adults.

Her opponent Wiley has garnered support due to his experience as Chief Deputy District Attorney in O’Malley’s office, and his campaign focused on equity measures like clearing wrongful convictions and old, non-violent drug offenses, while increasing trust between police, prosecutors and judges.

While more ballots must be counted this week, if the results hold Price and Wiley will face off in the November general election, where turnout is likely to be significantly higher.

The primary race for the county’s DA and sheriff is high-stakes for criminal justice transparency and reform in a region nearly double San Francisco’s size. Following years of protests over mistreatment and deaths at one of the nation’s largest jails — Santa Rita, now under a federal judge’s six-year oversight order to reform conditions and provide adequate mental health treatment — Sheriff Greg Ahern has only 34% of the vote.

With his opponent Yesenia Sanchez now at 50% of votes, it is possible Ahern may not make it to a runoff in November if the numbers hold. His and the DA’s office hold significant power, with the latter overseeing hundreds of attorneys and multiple police agencies, while determining criminal charges and whether to incarcerate people convicted of drug or theft offenses, or divert into alternative programs.

Nearby in Contra Costa County, which has about 1.1 million residents, voters reelected the state’s only Black elected DA, Diana Becton, who ran on continuing more progressive prosecutorial methods. Her challenger, prosecutor Mary Knox, ran using traditional pro-punishment messaging that claimed Becton was neither prosecuting enough cases nor convicting enough people to keep the public safe. New unofficial results released Friday afternoon had Becton at 56% of votes, with Knox trailing at 44%. 

Diane Becton has about 56% of the vote in the June 2022 California primary election, likely winning reelection as District Attorney for Contra Costa County. (Photo courtesy of Reelect Becton)

Becton said in a phone interview Thursday that she thinks results point to voters’ desire “that our justice system needs to be more fair and more equitable for everyone.”

“Four years ago when I was elected, I promised to do things differently,” Becton said.

She added she thinks people support her promises to focus on serious and violent crime, while investing in youth programs and alternative incarceration for minor offenses, diverting people with addiction or mental illness into treatment.

“The bail policies of the past that were status quo, they frankly decimated entire communities,” Becton said. “The voters have shown they believe with me that there’s a better way to do this.”

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In Alameda County, only Jimmie Wilson leaned on punitive policies, saying Oakland residents are feeling unsafe amid numerous shootings and robberies. His messaging earned him nearly 21% of the vote and many police department endorsements.

As O’Malley’s former deputy district attorney, he focused on reinforcing law and order and officer staffing, claiming officers aren’t taking on lower-level complaints because the county isn’t prosecuting them. 

“We have to put public safety over politics. We aren’t doing that right now,” Wilson said at an Oakland forum one week before the primary.

But the other candidates focused on reform and transparency, and how to decrease incarcerations and increase services for people heading to diversion court. Seth Steward, who took nearly 10% of the vote, proudly said he took no money or endorsements from law enforcement for his campaign, which pushed for resources to reform the juvenile justice system and ending the use of the death penalty.

Asked about the election and voter attitudes toward reform policies, Alameda’s outgoing DA Nancy O’Malley declined to comment.

On Wednesday, the New York Times openly wondered what San Francisco’s recall means for reform movements across the country. But California researchers say it is inaccurate to portray the city’s outcome as the only example. 

An editorial by the San Francisco Chronicle reminded readers that low turnout, at under 26% participation, showed the recall took place amid widespread apathy. Researchers told CalMatters that other races in majority-Democratic counties showed a preference for less punitive candidates.

Data from a May poll in San Francisco conducted by Public Policy Polling showed Boudin’s policies — such as not prosecuting children as adults and creating a unit to protect workers’ rights — were popular among the majority of San Francisco voters.

Poll results from San Francisco show how voters answered questions about the District Attorney and their opinions of current criminal justice policies in May 2022. (Image courtesy of Public Policy Polling)

Berkeley criminal justice professor Jonathan Simon called the San Francisco recall an indicator “of just how politically difficult it is to truly transform the criminal legal system.” He said protests in 2020 against policing and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers created false hope for diverting funds from police departments, when such changes can take years of effort to implement. 

Moderate reform attempts generate resistance from law enforcement and people “who cannot imagine a world without a prominent place for prisons and police” and law and order messaging has historically used people's discomfort “when racial justice takes center stage,” Simon said.

Local media has an important role in spreading messages by playing up visible crime like holiday retail theft, he said, pointing out how local reporters often quoted San Francisco Police Department's comments that “their efforts to remove repeat offenders from the community was being stymied by Boudin’s unwillingness to charge them with felonies.”

However, “The East Bay climate is not unbearably hostile to criminal justice reform,” Simon said. While he thinks anyone pushing for deep reform like Boudin will face steep challenges, Simon said Alameda County has a historically much higher Black population than San Francisco, which helped shift awareness to how traditional, anti-Black policies mistreated and displaced communities of color.

The professor said the focus should be to support “new institutions at every level of government and in civil society, that will address the insecurities and harms facing the most vulnerable communities … without primary reliance on the criminal legal system.”

“It’s clear that voters do not want to return to tough on crime policies,” said James King, campaign manager for the nonprofit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “They are passionate about effective reforms that create. sense of health and safety and community.”

“I think that certain media outlets gravitated toward the easy narrative. But as more results come in, we see that it wasn't about returning to extreme sentencing or incarceration as a response to the issues that are plaguing our societies. A DA will not create affordable housing, they are not the leading edge of how we respond to poverty based criminal offense,” King added.

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