In terms of the criminal justice system, it can be argued that the most important locally elected official is the district attorney.
So, in last month’s election, while many people focused their attention on House and Senate candidates, some of the most important races were at the local level. In California, the most significant – and surprising — development was the defeat of longtime San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos by Jason Anderson, a former-prosecutor-turned- defense attorney. Ramos, who has been in office 16 years, was one of the top proponents of Prop 66, which misled voters in 2016 by promising to “fix” and “speed up” California’s death penalty system, and has been an opponent to every statewide effort to reform the justice system during his tenure. He has also been one of the main roadblocks in the effort to get modern-day DNA testing for Kevin Cooper.
In Contra Costa County, Diana Becton won more than 50 percent of the primary vote, thereby clinching another term as DA. This was Becton’s first election, as she was appointed to serve out the previous term after disgraced former DA Mark Peterson resigned. (Like Ramos, Peterson was also a vocal proponent of the death penalty.). Becton is the first woman and first African American to be elected DA in Contra Costa’s 168-year history, and her platform was built with an understanding of how the justice system disproportionately harms poor people and communities of color.
“Voters are making decisions on who shares their vision of what they want for the community and they’re realizing the role prosecutors can play in creating a healthier community,” says Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who now supports newly elected district attorneys to “promote a justice system grounded in fairness and compassion,” through her organization, Fair and Just Prosecution.
But there were also a number of troubling losses, especially in Sacramento, San Diego, and Alameda counties, where voters who had supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 nevertheless opted to support the status quo and re-elected incumbent DAs despite well organized and well-funded campaigns for reformist candidates. Activist and Real Justice PAC co-founder Shaun King noted that “In the previous 4-year election cycle, nearly 90 percent of district attorneys ran completely unopposed. This is a core dysfunction of the system. Many district attorneys have been in power for so long that they are operating with de-facto lifetime appointments.”
King’s group joined forces with local activists in an attempt to unseat the incumbent DAs, and together they put in an astounding amount of work. But, as King noted in a piece on Medium, “Theoretically, in a county where Democrats mopped the floor with Republicans, running a smart, qualified Democrat against the conservative Republican DA would at least put us in a favorable position where winning was possible. We were wrong. Very wrong.”
Disappointing, yes, but it is important to remember that competitive DA races with reformist challengers bring unprecedented attention to offices that few voters have even heard of.
“We’re used to seeing incumbent DAs run unopposed without a second thought,” says Krinsky. “But now we’re seeing incumbents being challenged, with competitive races that show an awareness of the impact of these positions. That’s huge. We’re taking from the shadows a vitally important elected position.”