California Continues Electing Liberal District Attorneys, Then Works to Get Them Removed

The top prosecutor for a San Francisco Bay Area county was on the defensive as she took heat from citizens of the county’s largest city in a meeting that had all the hallmarks of an impending recall battle.

Many residents of affluent Oakland crammed into a church in late July to question progressive Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price on the recent spate of carjackings and attacks in the area.

A woman stated, “I voted for you, but I don’t feel safe here,” after describing being yanked out of her car at gunpoint one morning not so long ago. To back up Price’s claims that he is being unfairly blamed for ongoing issues, Price’s supporters — some of whom had been mobilized by a social media post calling on them to “show up in force” and fight “opponents of criminal justice reform” — gathered at the church.

The heated and disorganized town hall was reminiscent of a campaign rally, and it may have been a precursor to the successful recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, one of three such attempts in California in less than 18 months.

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Voters in Democratic strongholds have regularly elected prosecutors promising to overhaul the system, only to move to expel those DAs before the end of their first term, illustrating the state’s ambivalent embrace of criminal justice reform.

This isn’t just a California-specific phenomenon. Other progressive DAs, such as Manhattan’s Alvin Bragg and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, have faced legislative action at the state level to limit their efforts to rethink criminal justice with lenient sentencing and increased police accountability, but they were not targeted by recall campaigns.

Reformers and their Democratic supporters have taken a beating at the hands of national Republicans, who are using the backlash as evidence that progressive prosecutors are pursuing unpopular and hazardous ideas. Many believe that powerful law enforcement interests are protecting an unjust system.

They were going to try to recall her no matter what,” said Boudin in an interview after voters removed her from office in a 2022 recall that was largely seen as a barometer of a broad movement against reformers. To paraphrase one of their statements: “They want anybody who has a vision for trying to change the system to learn the lesson that you don’t try to change the system.”

Although Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón avoided a recall attempt after Boudin’s removal from office last year, he will be in for a tough re-election battle in 2024. Perhaps Price’s time has come now. The growing movement to recall her is following a well-worn pattern. In a county with a strong Democratic majority, the candidate opposed by law enforcement won the contest for district attorney.

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They conduct investigations into police officers who have killed or used force against suspects, and they alter sentencing policies to reduce prison terms. Then the backlash occurs: longtime deputy prosecutors retire or are forced out, describing a dysfunctional office that favors defendants over victims; startling crimes spark indignation and dread; social media blazes with condemnation; recall rumors become petitions; and so on.

One of the recall’s proponents, Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Carl Chan, said in an interview that Price was giving the impression that criminals would face no repercussions for their actions.

Six months in, you’re already pretty much destroying the legal system,” said Chan, who was attacked last year, before Price entered office, when a wave of attacks shook the Asian-American community. It is possible to choose the right path toward justice reform. Reforming the legal system cannot be used to excuse criminal behavior against defenseless victims.

In an interview published on Monday, Price said she was following the will of the people by working to destroy a system based on “racial, gender, and economic disparities.” To support her claim that African Americans have been “stiffed by the justice system” for decades, she cited statistics showing that they are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned.

Price claimed the recall effort was “consistent with the history of fighting against racial oppression in this country.” We won the election, but it doesn’t mean racism goes away. Price’s backers argue that the veteran civil rights attorney has delivered on all of her campaign promises.

She has greatly reduced the use of sentencing enhancements that add time for characteristics like gang membership, worked to keep people from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, reopened investigations into police shootings and deaths in custody, reexamined previous convictions, and increased oversight of a troubled county jail.

“Some of the criticism of her started before she even took office,” civil rights leader and attorney Walter Riley remarked. Nothing about the caliber of her work is affected by this. The level of resistance quickly rose. At the county courtroom in April, Price and her supporters protested against a “backlash” against those who “stand up for justice and freedom.”

By July, the recall committee had Price comparing the current situation to January 6, 2021 and accusing his opponents of “trying to seize control from local voters because they refuse to accept the results of a legitimate, democratic election.”

The traditional Black population in Oakland is dwindling as the city of over 400,000 people increasingly attracts tech workers from neighboring San Francisco, driving up housing prices. Despite remaining below historical highs, violent and property-related crimes have been on the rise in recent years, with killings up 80% and car break-ins up 90% from 2019 to now.

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Demands for a crackdown in a city long divided between the poorer flatlands that supported Price and the affluent upland areas where she got less support have been reinforced by brazen daytime crimes in wealthy neighborhoods. Oakland’s progressive new mayor, Sheng Thao, has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to send more CHP officers to the city.

An open letter from the Oakland NAACP in July decried a “intolerable public safety crisis” and criticized Price, drawing national attention and airtime on Fox News. Darren White, an Oakland NAACP member who has worked with the city’s youngsters for years, stated, “There are too many citizens coming forward that are just fed up with all the crime.”

“Youth on the street have told me that we can do A, B, or C because we won’t get charged.” Price’s defenders argue that it is ridiculous to hold her primarily accountable for crimes because she has the resources to either apprehend criminals or restore funding for the kind of community programs that could have prevented violence before the outbreak.

They point out that even when voters in San Francisco replaced Boudin with a stricter district attorney, crime did not decrease. Emeryville City Council Member Kalimah A. Priforce, who defended Price at the July town hall, said, “It is not the job of the DA to go out and prevent crimes.”

A person may say, “It’s as if we’re treating her like she’s crime nanny, that she’s supposed to go and solve all of our public safety woes.” Price, though, may be haunted by her high-profile charging judgments, like as the plea bargain she offered to a man accused of several murders.

The court flatly rejected the agreement, blaming a lack of communication from Price’s administration. Therefore, she attempted to have the judge removed from the bench but was unsuccessful.

Price’s office has also taken flak for its handling of the 2022 freeway shooting death of 23-month-old Jasper Wu, in which Price first advocated for lenient alternatives to incarceration and later dropped charges that may have barred the defendant from ever receiving parole.

Asian-Americans, who voted to recall Boudin in a resounding majority, have been following the case with great interest. Price claimed that her detractors were spreading “politically driven misinformation” by exaggerating her chances of winning individual cases.

Decisions on how much to pay employees have also come under scrutiny. Price has hired her spouse for a six-figure role, a move a Democratic state senator termed “indefensible” (Price maintained her partner is suitable for the job, noting that he handled her campaign), and a top deputy has been accused of misbehavior in a previous job, claims Price has refuted.

A former deputy has been accused with allegedly sharing work output with a police officer’s attorney, and Price has claimed holdovers from her predecessor have damaged her agenda. Len Raphael, an advocate for the recall, said the Wu case, assaults on women in his area, and the impression that Price was fostering a culture without repercussions prompted him to take action.

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He claims to have spent several weekends going door-to-door at farmer’s markets, where he met many individuals who now regret voting for Price. “A lot of people will be hurt,” Raphael said. “It’s an experiment, and I don’t want to be part of the experiment.” It is unclear at this time if the recall movement will involve the voting public.

Boudin’s dismissal was encouraged by massive contributions from conservatives and IT moguls like investor William Oberndorf, but the supporters have not filed formal papers or acknowledged how much money they have raised, which might be a deciding factor.

“This is not San Francisco,” Price said.  “There are some a lot of structural hurdles that have to be overcome — the financial hurdle of running a major campaign of that nature — and Alameda County is huge.” However, those who have been through the prosecutor battles in California think that Price should take the danger seriously.

“The lesson learned from the recall of DA Boudin is that opponents can’t wait to see if it qualifies to launch an aggressive anti-recall effort,” Max Szabo, a Democratic strategist who worked for Los Angeles DA Gascón, said in a text message.

“Recalls aren’t popularity contests, they’re an up or down vote, and this job is so steeped in controversy that the advantage tips dramatically in favor of proponents if it gets on the ballot.” District attorneys under fire have been urged to show they are responsive to public safety concerns by Gascón’s opponent, Jamarah Hayner.

Last year, Gascón argued that Boudin was mistaken for not realizing that “you cannot use data to deal with feelings.” “People want to know you’re hearing them and on their side,” Hayner added.

While it is a widespread attitude among reformers to want to get rid of prosecutors, “the cottage industry that has become recalls in California” is making it increasingly likely that this will happen.

“The recall in San Francisco did not result in a reduction of crime, so that seems to be a failed pathway forward,” said Ludovic Blain, the head of the leftist fundraising organization California Donor Table and a backer of Price. Yet, he continued, “Rather than focusing on: ‘Why is it that after a reformer is recalled crime goes up?’ Let’s go after her because she’s the next reformer, right?”

When it comes to American publications covering the state of California, few can match the credibility of the California Examiner.

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