California has lead the way on a number of significant criminal justice reform measures–from reforming Three Strikes to reducing the penalty for nonviolent drug crimes–but the state’s 58 District Attorneys haven’t always seen eye to eye on these efforts. Prison overcrowding, the use of Three Strikes, and the largest death row in the country plague a state caught in a deadlock of policy change. Five current California prosecutors recently signed onto the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration statement, pledging to “reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration.”
But, how do these five leaders stack up?
Let’s take an honest look at how their positions on relevant legislation and initiatives over the last few years stack up against their pledge to be leaders of reform.
Position: District Attorney of San Diego since 2003
Bonnie Dumanis is a rare prosecutor who served as a judge before being elected District Attorney of San Diego. Dumanis was a strong supporter of Prop 36, which brought significant, desperately needed changes to California’s draconian Three Strikes law. In fact, prior to Prop 36, Dumanis pushed for the release of Kenneth Corley, a San Diegan who was sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent offense; Corley became the first person to have his life sentence changed under Prop 36. Dumanis said that while “each case like this must be carefully reviewed, inmates like Corley are better served being released, and given treatment and rehabilitation.”
But, otherwise, her record has been mixed. In 2011, she came out in favor of realignment (Assembly Bill 109), an effort to address overcrowding by keeping prisoners serving shorter teams in county jails instead of state prisons, but later said that she “opposed realignment from Day One,” and added, “I’m still angry that some 500 laws were changed without sufficient hearings or a comprehensive implementation plan.” Dumanis also publicly criticized Prop 47, an initiative passed in 2014 that changed a number of nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, although she has been less vocal than other critics. Finally, she has maintained her support for the death penalty, albeit in limited circumstances. She was against Prop 34, which would have eliminated the death penalty, and argued that it should remain a tool against “child rapists” and “serial killers.” San Diego has used this tool frequently in the past – of the over 700 people on California’s death row, 40 are from San Diego. Dumanis remains committed to the death penalty as a part of the Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings coalition, which seeks to “speed up” the death penalty. And, her office seems determined to continue to seek the death penalty, albeit in rare circumstances, including in this recent case involving a man who shot three people.
Position: District Attorney for San Francisco since 2011.
George Gascón served as chief of San Francisco’s police department before he became a District Attorney, and he has consistently been the most reform-minded prosecutor in California. Gascón is the only one of the five District Attorneys who openly supported death penalty abolition when Prop 34 was before voters in 2012. He wrote that “in [his] 30 years in law enforcement, the existence or absence of the death penalty has had no impact on general public safety.” He refuses to support the newly proposed initiative to make the death penalty process faster.
Gascón chaired the committee that passed Prop 36, reforming Three Strikes, saying that the California voters had “had enough” of overly-punitive incarceration, particularly for nonviolent crimes.
Gascón similarly has worked to reduce the prison populations and focus on treatment over incarceration. He supported both realignment and Prop 47. He has discussed the challenge of getting police culture to think differently about felony arrests. In terms of Prop 47, Gascón was one of the primary backers and wrote in an op-ed stating: “Our overreliance on prisons has proved to be the most destructive drug of all. It is time to wean ourselves off this dependence.”
We are somewhat concerned by recent allegations that Gascón’s office failed to disclose racist text messages that were exchanged among San Francisco police officers in a timely manner, but to his credit, he has promised to pursue the case vigorously and denied any delay in turning over the evidence.
Position: District Attorney of Riverside since 2015
Mike Hestrin has made gestures towards criminal justice reform by meeting with advocates holding a variety of perspectives, however much of his talk appears to be more for show than a deep commitment to reform. He was a deputy district attorney for 18 years and his record reflects that he is staunchly pro-death penalty and willing to lock people up and throw away the key. For example, Hestrin supports the use of Three Strikes, while simultaneously arguing that prosecutors need to be “fair and reasonable.”
Riverside County is one of the 16 counties that had the highest number of death sentences in the country between 2010 and 2015. Hestrin personally sent seven people to San Quentin’s death row as a deputy district attorney. Since his election in 2015, in only one year, Riverside sent 8 people to death row–which is more than any other county in the United States. Hestrin said he pursued the death penalty in 16 out of 22 cases–or 73%– that were eligible. It’s not a surprise that he opposed Prop 34 and today supports the Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings coalition to make the death penalty swifter.
Hestrin has also opposed all of California’s initiatives to decrease prison population and has sought to build new jails over implementing mental health and drug treatment. He opposed realignment and blamed the measure for an increase in crime rates, and vigorously opposes Prop 47. Hestrin has labeled Prop 47 a “disaster” and said, “The criminal justice system has lost its teeth … I think it’s a shame.”
Position: District Attorney of Sonoma County since 2011
District Attorney Jill Ravitch has the unique distinction of seeing her county’s conviction rate rebound to the highest it has been in 10 years. This is probably the best metaphor for her term as D.A., bounce and rebound. In her first term, Ravitch drew criticism for her failure to prosecute a deputy who shot and killed an unarmed 13-year-old. She released a legal memo explaining her decision, but received substantial criticism for her choice.
Then there’s her stance on alleviating prison overcrowding. Ravitch was on the board that sponsored AB 109, the realignment bill, despite her personal hesitations on the efficacy of treatment over punishment: “If a bad guy doesn’t want to get better, he’s going to re-offend.” However, she is named as an opponent of Prop 47 and joined the sheriff’s department to express her disapproval, noting that the bill “misses the mark” by being too soft on crime.
On other issues, Ravitch’s office has been neutral. For example. Ravitch’s office took no stance on Prop 34, or on Three Strikes reform (Prop 36), although she said that her office pursues the life option “very rarely.” To Ravitch’s credit, she has made rational decisions not to pursue the death penalty frequently, including in the case of a man who is accused of killing three people in a drug deal gone bad. In this case, Ravitch said she “changed her mind” after considering the facts of the case and the evidence.
Position: District Attorney of Santa Clara County since 2011
Jeff Rosen took over the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office in a time of crisis. Santa Clara – the biggest prosecutor’s office north of Los Angeles – has had its fair share of prosecutorial misconduct in the past, from the use of jailhouse snitches, to withholding evidence in a murder trial, to just plain lying. Rosen did punish one of the DA’s accused of intentionally withholding evidence with a 30-day suspension and docked pay. (Admittedly, this is paltry compared to the impact on defendants and taxpayers.)
Since his election in 2011, however, he was valiantly tried to support issues that will decrease the prison population and restore prosecutorial integrity. For example, he’s one of the few district attorneys to open a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate claims of actual innocence. He also supported reforming Three Strikes (Prop 36), arguing it “balances individual fairness with public safety.”
He supported realignment, helping to operate one of the more successful parole programs in the state. Finally, Rosen has continued to support the release of nonviolent offenders, and was one of the official backers of Prop 47, writing,“we can reduce both crime and incarceration. CA’s prop 47 is an excellent case in point.”
Unfortunately, Rosen has consistently supported the death penalty, voting no on Prop 34 and standing proudly with the pro-death coalition assembling now. While he hasn’t pursued the death penalty every time a case is death-eligible, he continues to use it despite the fact that 54% of voters in Santa Clara County voted to eliminate the death penalty in 2012.