New Alliance of Progressive DAs to Push Criminal Justice Reform in California

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San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar, right, and Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton are part of a newly formed alliance of DAs pushing for statewide criminal justice reforms. (Courtesy of San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office)

San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar fits the traditional profile of a DA.

She’s a Republican from California’s Central Valley. She comes from a family whose last three generations have served in law enforcement. And, she’s a fiscal conservative.

But when Salazar became DA in 2015 and started talking to other elected prosecutors around the state, she often found herself on the outside looking in.

“The problem that I struggled with was that there wasn't a space for other voices to be heard. There wasn't a space for growth and change,” she said. “Every time that there was an opportunity to look at criminal justice differently and to have that really difficult conversation and really look at our role in all of this ... instead of saying, ‘This is an opportunity,’ they immediately went to opposition and they opposed all criminal justice or most criminal justice reform.”

On Tuesday, Salazar joined forces with two other DAs — Diana Becton of Contra Costa County and Chesa Boudin of San Francisco — as well as George Gascón, the former San Francisco DA now running for the top prosecutor job in Los Angeles, in announcing the formation of a “progressive law enforcement association.”

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Dubbed the Prosecutors Alliance of California, the group and its advocacy arm plan to campaign for and against state legislation, ballot initiatives and candidate races, with an eye on “modern and sustainable approaches to achieving safety and community health.”

Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the initiative, says the group will be actively involved in lobbying and educating state lawmakers in Sacramento as well as pushing back against ballot measures its members consider harmful, such as Proposition 20 on the ballot this November, which would roll back a number of recent statewide criminal justice reforms, making it harder for some state inmates to get parole and easier for others to be sent to prison or jail. The group will also serve as a resource for prosecutors who want to implement new policies and receive training on how to do so.

In this moment of widespread protests against systemic racism and distrust in the criminal justice system, members of the group say it’s crucial for diverse voices within the law enforcement community to be heard in an effort to help restore confidence in the system.

But Vern Pierson, head of he California District Attorney's Association, says his group represents a wide diversity of viewpoints and welcomes the new effort.

“CDAA represent 57 DAs, and 4,000 non-elected prosecutors in California. ... you can imagine in San Francisco versus Riverside there are very different perspectives on criminal justice issues,” said Pierson, the DA for El Dorado County. “I don't have a problem with the new organization — it represents a small segment of that.”

Pierson notes that Boudin, San Francisco's liberal district attorney, is also a member of CDAA, and says there will likely be issues the two groups can partner on.

As for Salazar, she freely admits she never expected to be part of an alliance with some of the most liberal DAs in the state. Boudin is a former public defender, while Gascón angered many of his law enforcement colleagues by helping write and push Proposition 47, one of the most sweeping statewide criminal justice reforms in years.

But, Salazar said, it actually fits quite well with her philosophy of public safety — she notes that for years, California increased spending on law enforcement and incarceration, but that it never correlated with lower crime or recidivism rates.

“I will definitely get backlash for this. I didn’t start my career thinking I'm going to be sitting next to these guys,” she said. “I had to have that very difficult conversation with myself as to what was my ethical and moral responsibility and what was my fiscal responsibility to my community. And how do I start healing it by building trust and transparency.”

The group aims to be a counter voice to existing law enforcement associations in California, which have wielded immense power, supporting and sometimes funding many of the state’s harshest sentencing laws and opposing most reform efforts.

Even as California has become more progressive and voters have been willing to embrace change, those associations have remained incredibly conservative, DeBerry notes.

That’s in part, she says, because most of those groups give equal voice to every county — meaning that Los Angeles County, with a population of 10 million, has the same weight as Alpine County, with its 1,100 residents.

“What is clear is that the criminal justice system we have had in this country no longer serves our best interests and arguably never did serve our best interests,” DeBerry said, pointing to the absence within the law enforcement community of any strong collective voice pushing for change.

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"And that has made it much harder, I think, for reform to prevail, because we've ended up in a conversation, a false conversation, that suggests there's a dichotomy between reform and safety,” she said.

Salazar echoes that frustration, saying she’s clashed with other California prosecutors over their position that any change will lead to violence in the streets; and over their insistence that even when voters have approved reforms, they didn't really know what they were voting for.

“I find that very insulting. I am a voter and I take my voting responsibility very seriously,” she said, noting that reforms like Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60% of the vote. “So, are you really saying 60% to 65% of our community is uneducated and ignorant and didn't know what they were voting for?”

In her book “Charged,” journalist Emily Bazelon examines how the overarching power of local prosecutors has helped further mass incarceration in the United States — and how some progressive DAs are seeking to reverse that trend. A group like the Prosecutors Alliance of California, she says, stands to make a real difference in debates around criminal justice reform, particularly in Sacramento, where law enforcement has traditionally spoken with one voice.

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“It changes who's speaking for law enforcement, right? So, if you have district attorneys united in saying that a sentencing reform is a bad idea, or it's not safe — that sends a really strong message,” Bazelon said. “If you have some DAs on the other side, even if it's the minority, saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we don't need these heavy sentences to do our jobs. We see a reason to make changes that will make the system more fair. And that is in line with our public safety goals.’ — That really changes the conversation.”