by David M. Greenwald
Earlier this year, San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar made national news by announcing her resignation from the California’s DA’s Association (CDAA). On Tuesday, she was joined by DAs Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), George Gascón (formerly of SF and running for LA DA), and Diana Becton (Contra Costa County) in announcing the creation of the Prosecutors Alliance of California.
“For too long law enforcement associations in our state have sold us a false bill of goods that those two concepts (safety and justice) cannot co-exist,” said said Prosecutors Alliance Founder and Executive Director, Cristine Soto DeBerry who has also for the past ten years served as chief of staff first to George Gascón and now to Chesa Boudin in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.
She added, “We are forming the Prosecutors Alliance of California to be a new voice, a new law enforcement that can speak to the enforcement of reform and our ability to maintain our safety when we do so.”
This is a first-of-a-kind association in the country because of its focus on reform. The announcement follows nationwide protests and growing distrust in a criminal justice system mired in systemic racism.
DeBerry said they will be pushing hard in California in advocating for state legislation and ballot measures, as well as efforts around training and convenings, to make sure that prosecutors and prosecution leaders such as these have an opportunity for their voices to be heard.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin talked about his earlier childhood experiences teaching him how broken the criminal justice system is and how it fails to rehabilitate people who commit crimes, and fails to give crime victims the support they need.
“In many ways, the criminal justice policies that we’ve seen from coast to coast, and all across the state of California in my lifetime have actually made us less safe,” Boudin said. “I became a district attorney because I wanted to fight those policies.
“I wanted to be sure that the policies that we implement are driven by data and not fear,” he said. “We can do better and we are doing better in San Francisco and in so many other counties where we have prosecutors committed to reform.”
The problem is that, for decades, the law enforcement unions and their voices which have dominated the policies have absolutely overwhelmed reform efforts through fear-mongering and dishonesty.
“It’s time for a change,” he said. “Ultimately, law enforcement unions have a vested interest in tough-on-crime policies, as criminalization leads to more police and correctional officers, and more money for the unions that represent them. The safest communities don’t have police on every corner, and from San Francisco to Sacramento, we can no longer allow these groups to distort what’s in their interest with what’s in the interest of your safety.”
One of the big differences is that this group of prosecutors has announced they are not accepting donations from law enforcement groups, which DeBerry noted sets them apart from the CDAA that continues to accept donations from those groups—even as they are required to make charging decisions about whether police officers have committed misconduct or used excessive force in the line of duty.
“The way we intend to approach our advocacy is as an independent voice that the community can rely on,” Deberry said.
George Gascón, now running for DA in Los Angeles, called this “an historic moment.” He cited his long history and said, “One of the things that I learned in this journey is that incarceration, fear-mongering never necessarily led to safety and in fact often created less security for communities and increased the inequalities of the criminal justice system.”
The message coming out law enforcement associations, in his view, has been a very self-serving message and has nothing to do with public safety.
“It had everything to do with perpetuating the basic political power,” he said. “This really had to do with money. As they increase the level of fear in our community and we collectively pay more and more taxpayer dollars into our broken criminal justice system, an increasing amount is going to the very messenger that is lying to us.
“In San Francisco we were able to show we could lower incarceration and reduce crime,” he said.
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said that she comes from the Central Valley and from a house of law enforcement. She talked about her father driving the paddy wagon that came by and her grandmother fed them. She asked her father, “Why don’t you just take them to jail?” He explained to her that once you take someone to jail, it’s a different pathway: “Once you’re engaged in the criminal justice system it is very difficult to get out.”
She said that was 45 years ago and was a huge lesson to her. He talked about the fact that they were causing no real harm, they were just suffering from substance abuse. He said, “I don’t have any other place to take him. The last place I should take them is the jail. Because putting them in a cement box isn’t going to make them better.”
She said that everyone is struggling for answers to society’s problems, “but the answer cannot be to go to the past, when the past has proven overwhelmingly, it did not work.
“A broad spectrum of political ideologies believe in a smaller, less punitive, and more equitable system of justice,” she said. “This is one of the few issues in America’s discourse upon which Republicans and Democrats can find common ground, and we welcome prosecutors from across the political spectrum to join us. All you need is the courage to challenge the status quo and the ability to reflect and grow.”
“This is not a debate that’s happening solely in the streets, it’s happening in the legislature and at the highest levels of government,” said Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton. “We need a voice at the table that represents us and understands we must pursue modern alternatives to the status-quo.”
The Prosecutors Alliance of California is the first such progressive law enforcement association in the nation to engage in advocacy at the state and local levels. However, prosecutors in Virginia and Missouri are interested in bringing a new voice to their jurisdictions as well.
“The definition of insanity is doubling down on the same tough-on-crime strategies that failed to make us safer, and expecting a different result,” said Circuit Attorney for the City of St. Louis, Kim Gardner.
She added, “Black and brown communities are disproportionately victimized, arrested and incarcerated. To level the playing field public safety professionals must focus on the root causes of crime, we must retire a dated approach that focuses on punishment at the expense of getting results for our communities. Our voices are louder when we’re organized, and together we can bring our criminal justice system out of the dark ages.”
“It’s the 21st Century, it’s time to reject the failed policies that defined the 20th Century,” said Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales.
She said, “A group of status quo prosecutors should not be allowed to dictate what is and what is not in the interests of safety when young black and brown people are the ones victimized and incarcerated at disproportionate rates. We need a new paradigm in criminal justice, and several of my colleagues in Virginia have joined me as we seek to build a new voice in our community. The Prosecutors Alliance could help us get there faster.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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