In November, Larry Krasner, a man who spent his career defending criminals and protecting civil rights and who campaigned on reforming a criminal justice system that he described as overly punitive and discriminatory, became the elected district attorney in Philadelphia.
As the LA Times wrote in December, “Krasner joins a growing list of district attorneys around the country — including Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn, Kim Foxx in Chicago and Kim Ogg in Houston — who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system.”
The parallels between Mr. Krasner and Dean Johansson are somewhat striking. The Times article quoted Clarise McCants from Color of Change, who said, “What happened in Philly is starting to open the eyes of people in other places.”
Mr. Krasner never thought of running for district attorney and had made his career on the other side of the courtroom, not only defending the accused but suing police dozens of times for corruption and abuse.
But Mr. Krasner, as he evaluated candidates to replace the corrupt incumbent DA Seth Williams, didn’t see any fit for the job.
“I saw no potential for real transformational change,” he said in an interview. So he decided to run himself.
“The culture around criminal justice has not been justice,” Mr. Krasner said when he announced his candidacy.
Dean Johansson has spent the last decade as a deputy public defender in Yolo County. Unlike Mr. Krasner, he actually was a prosecutor for a time in Tulare County.
He was expecting to back Deputy DA Larry Eichele in a challenge against three-term incumbent Jeff Reisig, who ran unopposed in 2010 and 2014 after a bitterly fought 2006 initial race against fellow Deputy DA Pat Lenzi, where Mr. Reisig prevailed 53-47.
Mr. Johansson spent a month or so after Mr. Eichele had dropped out of the race trying to find a replacement – finding none, he decided to run himself.
Many people do not understand just how unique Yolo County actually is from a criminal justice system perspective. For a county that is in the middle tier in terms of crime rate, Yolo has one of the more oppressive systems in the state.
This is a county where we have disproportionate incarceration rates – near the top in the state.
As Mr. Johansson put it, “The US leads the word in incarceration and Yolo County leads the State of California in incarceration. Out of 58 counties, Yolo is one of the top six counties for per capita prison population. It is number one for jury trials. This is the county of incarceration, and countless children and families pay the price.”
The blame for that, he argues, is “the oppressive backward policies of the Yolo District Attorney.”
Mr. Johansson can also make the case that the elected DA is out of line with the preferences of the voters.
He said on Thursday, “While the people of Yolo have consistently voted in favor of progress, the Yolo DA consistently worked against it. Proposition 36 (reformed the three strikes law), 74% of Yolo
County voted in favor but the DA remained neutral; Proposition 47 (reduced nonviolent offenses), 61 % voted in favor while the DA opposed; Proposition 57 (increased Parole Chances), 68% of Yolo voted in favor while the DA opposed; and Proposition 64 (legalized adult use of marijuana), 60% voted in favor while the DA opposed.”
If we need a guide to what a Dean Johansson-led DA’s office will look like, we should look no further than Larry Krasner.
In his first week in office, Mr. Krasner dismissed 31 members from the office as part of a “broad reorganization” of the office’s structure and a way to implement the type of cultural change needed.
Wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The announcement was the first bombshell in what some of his supporters have hoped — and his critics have feared — would be a wave of drastic changes accompanying the installation of the career civil rights lawyer to the city’s top law enforcement job.
“During his campaign, Krasner pledged to reduce the number of people behind bars, never use the death penalty, and seek to end use of cash bail — goals that earned praise from fellow Democrats and liberal criminal justice observers, but skepticism or even scorn from other law enforcement officials.”
Mr. Krasner will potentially look to further revamp the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit. That is something that seems particularly weak in Yolo County. The Vanguard has identified as many as 20 cases of potential wrongful conviction that have taken place since 2006.
According to the Vanguard records request, the unit in Yolo County has examined just six cases since it was founded in 2014, recommending none of them for further review.
In Philadelphia their office’s unit has been revamped, going from just one part-time staff member during its three-year existence to four dedicated staffers reporting directly to the DA’s Chief of Staff.
When the unit was launched in April 2014, it was criticized by criminal justice advocates for lacking “the resources and transparency of other successful units across the country.” A similar complaint was made here in Yolo County.
The election of a new reform-minded DA can change the entire culture. Mr. Krasner described their office as having “a record of mandatory and ‘excessive’ sentencing and a system that disproportionately incarcerates minorities and poor people.”
He ran on a platform of changing that culture, “vowing to ‘decarcerate’ Philadelphia, reform cash bail, treat drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a crime, protect immigrants and focus on serious criminals over low-level offenders.”
Meanwhile, Dean Johansson on Thursday said that “this is a movement that is tired of seeing a system that has systematically picked on poor people, primarily black and brown people. This is a movement that is loudly telling government what it wants, and what it wants is criminal justice reform in ways that require transformational reform within the Yolo County District Attorney’s office.”
He said, “If you believe it’s time to end mass incarceration, believe it is time to end the death penalty, if you believe it’s time to stop making prisoners of poor people by using cash bail. If you are sick and tired of government stealing our futures and the futures of our children, and if you have no intention of helping Trump’s immigration agenda, then join with me.”
Can he win, many people have asked me in the last week. For me, the key question for me is how deep does the discontent with the DA go? He has left a long trail of enemies who, because Jeff Reisig has not faced electoral challenge since 2006, have never had a chance to step up and tell their story.
The question will be how deep that resentment goes and can it be mobilized and harnessed into a movement that can upset the balance of power in Yolo County. We shall see. But for the first time in 12 years, there will be a real debate over the direction of the criminal justice system in Yolo County and, if anything, that will be a positive for its residents.
—David M. Greenwald reporting