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Women Are Poised to Change California's Justice System

Pamela Price, left, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, center, and Diana Becton are running for district attorney posts in three California counties.

District attorneys can play a major role in reducing (or amplifying) race-based incarceration in America’s largest cities. Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King announced in February that he is launching a political action committee to help elect reform-minded DA candidates and draw national attention to the issue. “No position in America, no single individual has a bigger impact on the criminal justice system—including police brutality, but the whole crisis of mass incarceration in general—than your local district attorney,” King said. “They are the gatekeepers of America’s justice system.”

In the past several years, progressive newcomers have unseated conservative old-guard incumbents in places like Caddo Parish, Louisiana, PhiladelphiaHoustonDenver and Jacksonville, to great effect.

The importance of diversifying the office of district attorney cannot be overstated. Across the country, 95 percent of district attorneys are white, and only 1 percent are women of color. Justice reform experts argue that the lack of representation for communities that are overpoliced, over-arrested and over-charged is a major factor in the mass incarceration of people of color. Across the U.S., grassroots efforts are underway to reshape the justice system by choosing new progressive leaders who reflect the communities they serve.

Women of color recently elected to the DA’s office have already made huge strides in ending mass incarceration in their cities. “Aramis Ayala, the state’s attorney in Orlando, has implemented policies that reduced the number of children tried in adult court,” said Jessica Brand, legal director of the Fair Punishment Project. “Kim Foxx, Cook County’s first African-American female prosecutor, has implemented major changes to her county’s bail practices.”

2018 could bring a handful of progressive black women to the DA’s office in California alone. Here are three of the most promising candidates.

1. Diana Becton

Credit: Diana Becton

Former judge Diana Becton made history in the Bay Area last fall when she became the first African American and the first female DA in Contra Costa County, California, just north of San Francisco. Becton was appointed to the position as interim after her predecessor was ousted for illegally spending $66,000 in campaign finance money on personal expenses. She has since launched her campaign to hold the position permanently. In January, one of her rivals pulled out of the race and threw his support behind Becton.

As interim DA, Becton has show dedication to progressive goals like reforming the broken bail system, deprioritizing low-level offenses, and pursuing alternatives to juvenile lockup. “Mass incarceration is expensive, and has proven ineffective for achieving the most important goal, which is public safety,” she has said.

2. Geneviéve Jones-Wright 

Credit: Geneviéve Jones-Wright

In San Diego County, in Southern California, Geneviéve Jones-Wright runs to outseat current DA Summer Stephan, whose politics the San Diego Free Press has said “enable a broken police culture placing the police first, not the victims, the defendants or justice.” The city has recently seen a rapid growth in its homeless population, many of whom have been targeted by police. In one highly publicized case, a police officer lied under oath about his reasons for arresting a homeless man last summer. Stephan’s critics say she has been reluctant to remove such officers.

Progressives in San Diego see Jones-Wright’s candidacy as a significant departure from the city’s current system of back-door dealing. She told the Times of San Diego that her supporters are, “People who see the need for a criminal justice system that is informed by scientific research into the human condition, people who understand that mass incarceration is as expensive as it is inhumane.”

“We cannot incarcerate our way out of crime,” Jones-Wright says on her campaign website. “We must reduce incarceration and reallocate the resources spent on our prisons to our schools, treatment, and victim services.”

3. Pamela Price

Credit: Pamela Price

Pamela Price, a career civil rights attorney in Oakland’s Alameda County, is challenging current district attorney Nancy O’Malley. A self-described survivor of foster care, Price is a Yale and Berkeley Law graduate with a record of advocating on behalf of communities of color and women. In 2002, she successfully argued a racial discrimination case against Amtrak before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her 10-Point Platform includes progressive stances like opposition to the death penalty, support of immigrant communities facing persecution by ICE, and ending stop-and-frisk practices.

Price supports eliminating the cash bail system, which she says “criminalizes poverty and disproportionately hurts communities of color.” If elected DA, she says she would expand alternatives to prosecution and access to probation programs, rather than incarceration for low-level crimes. She has also vowed to “implement policies to break the school-to-prison pipeline and will end the practice of prosecuting children as adults,” her campaign website says. As the Oakland Post explains, Price believes a young person who vandalizes a bus should have an opportunity to clean buses rather than go to jail. “My thing is put a kid to work,” she told the outlet.

Liz Posner / AlterNet

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