Guest Commentary: California’s New Attorney General Has a Reputation As a Criminal Justice Reformer, but His Biggest Test Is Yet to Come

Rob Bonta speaking at San Quentin last summer

Rob Bonta’s career has hinged on the idea that the law can be used to engender social justice. His elevation to California’s “top cop” position, where he will become responsible for the vast bureaucracy of the state’s criminal legal system, will be a crucible for that belief.

By Piper French

In late March, when California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he had selected Rob Bonta as state attorney general, he did so at San Francisco’s International Hotel.

It was a symbolic backdrop—an acknowledgment of the strong history of grassroots political resistance in California, and an implicit promise that the future of the attorney general’s office will be shaped by that past. In 1977, the hotel was the site of a fierce organizing campaign to stop the eviction of the building’s elderly and low-income Chinese and Filipino residents. Bonta’s mother, Cynthia Bonta, was among those who had gathered to defend the tenants.

“Rob represents what makes California great—our desire to take on righteous fights and reverse systematic injustices,” Newsom said of Bonta, who was previously a state legislator representing a district in the East Bay.

The state Senate easily confirmed Bonta last month, making him the first Filipino American to assume the role. But meaningfully advancing the legacy and promise of activism from the vantage point of the attorney general’s office will be a far greater challenge. Neither of Bonta’s predecessors were typical law-and-order avatars either, but both ended up doing far more to defend the existing criminal legal system than challenge it. As attorney general, Kamala Harris fought a Supreme Court order to decarcerate California’s prisons. Lauded for his legal challenges to the Trump administration, Xavier Becerra has taken hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from law enforcement groups and refused to release police misconduct records. 

Bonta’s record on criminal justice reform, and his ties to groups doing the frontline work to transform prisons and policing, are stronger than either Becerra or Harris. The political moment,
too, is different; his nomination itself is testament to that. But the state Department of Justice will almost certainly be recalcitrant to change, and Bonta could fall prey to the same forces that stayed his predecessors’ hands from the bold action required to end mass incarceration and transform current systems of policing in California.

“He has a strong foundation to draw from, but he’s going to face a new level of pressure from the very powerful law enforcement lobbying groups, and it’ll be a test of his character,” Angela Chan, Senior Staff Attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, told The Appeal.

Bonta’s career and public identity have hinged on his belief in the law’s capacity to engender social justice. His elevation to California’s “top cop” position, where he will become responsible for the vast bureaucracy of the state’s criminal legal system, will be a crucible for that belief.

Bonta was born in the Philippines, grew up around California, and attended Yale, where he has recalled cleaning laundry rooms to help cover his tuition. The attorney general has spoken frequently of his parents’ organizing work alongside labor rights icons like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, saying that activism is “hard-wired into my DNA.” But Bonta also knew early that he would be a lawyer, not an activist. “I saw the law as the best way to make a positive difference for the most people,” he said on the day of his attorney general nomination. (Bonta did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)

After law school, also at Yale, Bonta clerked for a U.S. District Court judge for a year and spent four years in private practice, followed by nearly a decade as a San Francisco deputy city attorney. Ann O’Leary, Governor Newsom’s former chief of staff, who worked as a city attorney at the same time and served on an Affirmative Litigation task force with Bonta, said he “had a very well-deserved reputation as a first-rate lawyer.” There, Bonta’s choice of law as a career path led to strategic litigation work defending consumers’ rights, where O’Leary described him as “very forward-leaning on the type of work we should take on.” It also meant occasionally defending the city’s police against accusations of excessive force.

Involvement in Alameda Democratic politics and community groups—an old CV reveals Bonta’s extensive list of public service affiliations—and a brief stint on the Alameda City Council led to his successful run for state assembly in 2012. Though O’Leary wasn’t surprised when her former colleague went into state politics, she was also aware of the trade-off: Bonta, she said, was “walking away from his top-notch legal career to become one of many elected representatives in Sacramento.” Bonta later said it was “the best decision I ever made.”

Bonta’s record in the state legislature has earned him a reputation as a champion of criminal justice reform. Over the past nine years, he has authored or sponsored bills to ban private prisons, end felony murder prosecutions, and mandate that DAs recuse themselves from investigations into police misconduct if they have accepted money from the police officers union.

Embraced by California’s Democratic establishment—Bonta is a close ally of Newsom—he is also genuinely well-regarded by many advocates and activists. “I have mad respect for any politician who’s willing to say ‘Anti Police-Terror Project,’” Cat Brooks, who co-founded the Oakland organization of that name, told The Appeal. “That’s a handful of folks, and he’s one of them.” Chan, of the Asian Law Caucus, has worked with Bonta on a wide variety of immigrant rights bills. She’s come to trust the lawmaker for his collaborative spirit and willingness to listen. “He is great working in coalition, working in community spaces,” she said.

Bonta has often supported programs that advance community solutions to crime or policing issues, at times at odds with Newsom. Brooks said he has been a “champion” of Anti Police-Terror Project’s Mental Health First initiative, and was an early supporter and sounding board for the CRISES Act, which the governor vetoed last year. Recently, he introduced Assembly Bill 886, which would combat violence against Asian Pacific Islander communities by funding restorative justice programs and strengthening mental health support for victims of racist attacks.

The bill, which is now being sponsored by Assemblymember David Chiu, came about after Bonta approached the Asian Law Caucus to get their thoughts on potential policy solutions to anti-Asian Pacific Islander violence. “We don’t want these tragedies to be used to funnel more resources to local law enforcement, especially given the harm that this would cause to Black and brown communities who receive the brunt of law enforcement excessive force,” Chan told The Appeal. “I think our analysis really resonated with him.” At the press conference following his nomination, Bonta told reporters that he would not use his position as attorney general to double down on carceral solutions to hate crimes.

Still, Bonta’s time in the legislature has not been without its conflicts with activists. In 2016, he and Senator Bob Hertzberg introduced Senate Bill 10 to end the use of cash bail in the state. Though bail reform has long been a central goal of the criminal justice reform movement, the legislation ultimately dismayed many advocates for its significant concessions to probation lobbying groups.

The Los Angeles-based organization Dignity and Power Now was one of the few groups to oppose SB 10 from the beginning. Its director of campaigns and policy, Lex Steppling, told The Appeal he suspected the bill would get co-opted because of the probation industry’s involvement in its crafting. “I knew if things were to trend in the wrong direction, somebody like Bonta wasn’t actually going to do anything about it,” Steppling said. “I don’t think he was deeply familiar with the issue at the time.” Ultimately, he added, SB 10 “exceeded our worst expectations”: an 11th-hour rewrite gave the court system, and individual judges, control over the use of algorithmic risk assessments to determine pre-trial release. At the time, Bonta defended the bill from “rumors” that it had been watered down.

In November 2020, SB 10 was placed on the ballot as Proposition 25; it failed after being publicly opposed by both the bail industry and many racial justice organizations. Steppling did give Bonta credit for reaching back out to Dignity and Power Now following Prop 25’s defeat and introducing another bail reform bill that Steppling says may avoid some of SB 10’s pitfalls. “It’s way weaker than what we would do,” Steppling said, “but it’s certainly not a step backward.”  Dignity and Power Now is lobbying to expand the bill’s scope and stop any potential use of electronic monitoring.

If Bonta pushes substantial criminal justice reforms as attorney general, he’s sure to face opposition. Some fear that the entrenched culture at the state DOJ will hamper Bonta’s efforts. “I worry that he’s potentially going to be very stymied by the long-term people in his office,” Jennifer Hansen, an LA-based appellate attorney, told The Appeal. “It’s really hard to go in and tell people how to do their job differently.” She pointed to the legal battle between Los Angeles reform DA George Gascón and his deputy district attorneys as an example.

Neither can the political and financial muscle of law enforcement be underestimated. Bonta will have to defend his position in less than two years, when he will likely face a challenger with a more punitive approach: Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert, who has frequently criticized her more progressive counterparts, recently announced she will be running against him in 2022.

And although Bonta’s record as a legislator has produced a good deal of loyalty among many community organizations and advocates, his move to the Department of Justice may test these bonds.

“If he tends to skew more carceral and does not use his position to address police reform, address the death penalty, address racial justice, address mass incarceration—it could be an issue,” said Brendon Woods, the chief public defender of Alameda County, who has known Bonta for years.

“I am optimistic that he will be able to take the position and use it for good, but I think we also need to hold people in those positions to an extremely high standard,” Woods added. “It can’t be status quo.”

Brooks echoed his sentiment. “Just because I agree with Rob’s politics doesn’t mean that we don’t have every intention of holding him accountable to being the most progressive attorney general this state has ever seen,” she said.

Expectations are high, in other words. People interviewed for this article described a wide range of demands for Bonta’s new role, many of which would require him to wield the power of his office in bold and novel ways to meaningfully advance the work he started as a state legislator.

Woods said he hopes Bonta “has the will to dig into and understand the complete realm and complexity of collateral consequences that are attached to criminal convictions—and begin to unwind that system.” He and Hansen spoke of the need for more funding for and deference to defense. “I’ve been doing appeals in California for 13 years, and I’ve never had a case where the AG agreed that the defendant should get a new trial,” Hansen said. “I’m hoping [Bonta] might give his line attorneys more freedom to concede things when it’s appropriate.”

“One of the things that we’re going to ask of him is that he addresses not just interpersonal horrendous acts of violence, but also systemic state violence against API communities,” said Chan. She pointed to the state’s pattern of transferring Southeast Asian refugees who have completed prison sentences to ICE custody, where many will be deported to a country they’ve never known.

Brooks said she hopes that Bonta will enforce California’s new law on police use of force and the 2019 Right to Know Act, which made internal police investigation and discipline records more accessible to the public but Becerra has largely blocked. And she hopes he will work to end qualified immunity and investigate “rogue” law enforcement agencies like the Vallejo Police Department.

On June 2, 2020, Sean Monterrosa was shot to death by a Vallejo police officer named Jarrett Tonn in a Walgreens parking lot, not far from Bonta’s assembly district. Monterrosa was on his knees when the officer opened fire. Becerra, Bonta’s predecessor, announced an investigation into the Vallejo Police Department’s destruction of evidence in the case, but ultimately declined to investigate the shooting itself. “It was a slap in the face,” Sean’s sister Michelle Monterrosa told The Appeal. “We deal with this weight every day.”

Michelle and Ashley Monterrosa met Rob Bonta in the months after their brother’s killing to discuss Assembly Bill 767, legislation that Bonta co-authored that would have extended victim compensation funds to survivors of police violence and families of people killed by police.

“His track record is on the side of justice,” Michelle told The Appeal.

“Now that he has this position to actually really do something,” Ashley said, “I hope that he champions what he’s been trying to work on for the last few years.”

Last month, the Grassroots Law Project published a petition demanding that Bonta meet again with the Monterrosa family, this time as attorney general, to discuss Sean’s killing.

“I hope he can sit down with us and talk about our brother’s case, but also what real accountability looks like—for the Vallejo Police Department, but also throughout California,” Michelle said.

Article originally published in the Appeal.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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