What is a district attorney?
The California primary elections will take place on June 5. There’s a lot at stake, in state and around the country. Not only will state and federal representatives be on the ballot, Californians will need to whittle down the candidate pools for attorney general and governor, two significant offices in administration of the death penalty system.
On the local level, there are many important elections as well, although they receive much less attention and fanfare.
District attorney is one of the main offices that determines criminal justice policy for a county. DAs decide what charges to bring for what offenses and oversee their counties’ prosecutors as they make plea bargains and try cases. They can also decide to try children and teenagers as adults or steer them to pre-trial diversion programs. They can decide if people using drugs or experiencing mental illness get incarcerated or receive treatment. In essence, they are the gatekeepers to the state prison system.
This is true for the death penalty as well. Many DAs are vocal supporters of the death penalty and tout this support as an example of their tough-on-crime bona fides, even while the actual rate at which they seek death has dropped in recent years. Moreover, an inordinate amount of death sentences come from just a few DA offices. Much of this decrease can be attributed to factors that include the rise of plea bargaining, where prosecutors threaten defendants with the death penalty in hopes of getting them to plead guilty in exchange for another sentence, such as life without parole; or the huge cost of death penalty trials, which comes out of county funds; or the growing reluctance of juries to sentence a person to death. There are even prosecutors who have pledged that they will not seek the death penalty, either for those reasons or because they do not believe it has a place in the justice system.
So how do I know who to vote for?
Here in California, there are 58 counties, each with its own district attorney. Many DAs run unopposed in their re-election campaigns, but this year there are a surprising number of challengers to the incumbents.
Death Penalty Focus is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so we cannot endorse or oppose individual candidates in any election race, but we can encourage people to research their candidates to make up their own minds before they vote by mail or in person on June 5.
Here are a few good resources to help in your research.
If you’ve ever googled a candidate or ballot measure, you’re probably already familiar with the wiki-style site, Ballotpedia, which bills itself as the “Encyclopedia of American Politics.” Ballotpedia is usually a one-stop-shop for big elections, but their municipal-level information can be a bit lacking and hard to navigate. Nonetheless, it features enough information about the candidates in each race to get a basic sense of who they are and who endorses them. Click here to see Ballotpedia’s list of municipal (city and county) elections in California.
Voter’s Edge is similar to Ballotpedia, but it is a little more user-friendly. Simply enter your ZIP code, and you’ll receive a sample ballot with all of the races and candidates you’re eligible to vote for. For DA candidates, you can see their top-3 priorities, endorsements, and contact information. Click here to get started on Voter’s Edge.
Vote4DA.org is similar to Voter’s Edge in that you can enter your location, and the site will pull the relevant information for you. But it goes one step further, by focusing only on DA candidates and their positions on a number of criminal justice issues. Vote4DA.org is a project of the ACLU of California’s Smart Justice, Color of Change, the Faith in Action Fund, and the Rock the Vote Action Fund. The group created a questionnaire and sent it to each district attorney candidate, so the site provides an easy way to see how the candidates approach a number of important issues in more depth than the other resources. Click here to visit Vote4DA.org.
Whoever you choose, make sure to vote!
While many people are focused on the outcome of the November elections, it’s important to remember that June 5 is the date of the primary elections in California. California has a so-called “jungle primary” system, in which a pool of candidates from all parties is whittled down to the top two vote-getters, who will then advance to the November election.
But in races where there are only two candidates, June 5 is the election.
If you are not registered to vote, or if you are not sure if you’re registered, you can click here to make sure in just a few minutes.
You may want to opt for the convenience of a vote-by-mail ballot as well. It will give you the chance to fill it out as you research your candidates, and then you can simply drop it in the mail or at a voting center on June 5.
DAs hold enormous power and responsibility in the administration of the criminal justice system. The decisions they make, and the policies they enact, have a huge impact in our communities and reverberate around the state. Please make sure to research your candidates and vote on–or before–June 5.