by Robert J. Hansen
An online forum for Sacramento County District Attorney candidates Alana Mathews and Thien Ho, hosted by the Cruz Reynoso Bar Association and United Latinos, was held last Wednesday.
The event was moderated by Richard Falco of United Latinos, Josie Morales of NorCal Resist, and Joe Ayala with the California Legislative Counsel Bureau.
Selected questions from the forum were chosen for this report.
Q: “What do you see as your role as the district attorney and which aspects of your candidacy do you feel most qualify you for that role?”
Ho: “One the first day I will bring an experienced and balanced approach to protecting our communities, providing justice for victims, and ensuring that our systems treat everyone equally. It’s about safety, not politics. I possess experience in the courtroom, the executive room, the classroom, and the community. We cannot afford to place the public safety and legal justice system in inexperienced hands. Expertise is earned through experience and I’ve been a prosecutor for over 20 years. I’ve directed and supervised over 100 actual prosecutors. I’ve recruited, hired, and promoted actual prosecutors. I’ve balanced and shaped an $85 million budget of a prosecutor’s office, not at the energy commission or some outside bureaucracy but a prosecutor’s office.
Mathews: The role of the district attorney has three parts. The first is to seek justice in criminal cases. We decide who to charge, what charges to file, and what is the appropriate measure for accountability. I also believe that the role of the DA is to work to prevent crime and be a trusted leader in the diverse community of people that the DA serves. The part of my candidacy that makes me the most qualified, is the fact that I am the only candidate with a broad and diverse set of experiences that uniquely qualifies me for this role. As a former prosecutor, I did the work. I also worked in the courtroom and prosecuted misdemeanors, juvenile hall, domestic violence, and felony cases including home invasions, attempted murder as well as prison crimes. What the DA does in the courtroom is often effective. We know how to go in and get a conviction on a case. Where they have not been successful is in the community and helping to prevent crime. We only have to look at our headlines to see the reality. So the part of my candidacy that help me fulfill this role is that I have worked in the community while I was a DA. I worked in the community mentoring women on parole and mentoring at-risk youth. I did that because I believe transforming lives is just as important as protecting them. At the California Energy Commission, I led organizational change which means I looked at the disparities in the programs, policies, and investments that we had and said where do we need to change. I didn’t just talk about or think about how we can incorporate diversity and how we can change it, I did it. I would bring that same motivation and initiative to the Sacramento DAs office.”
Q: “What policy, that specifically impacts Latinos, would you implement that is different from your predecessors? Also what policies have you enacted or have helped to enact that impacted the community, specifically the Latino community? Please provide specific examples.
Mathews: “Two areas that are not showing results in the Latino community are instances of wage justice. There is not a lot of enforcement against those who are not providing fair compensation to members of the Latino community who are working. Because of the pandemic, the harm that’s caused by that injustice is felt even more. Then human trafficking. A lot of times you see the face of a suburban teen that has been trafficked. We know a lot of Black and Brown youth are disproportionately impacted by human trafficking and not enough has been done. I’ve talked to undocumented women who have thanked me for just ‘seeing our face,’ because no one has seen us or checked on us and we live in hiding all the time basically because we don’t know that there’s a voice for justice for us. I’m running for DA for all of those who haven’t received justice. As far as specific policies that impact the Latino community includes when I was a public advisor at the California Energy Committee. I held community meetings to engage and elevate the voice of the Latino community. It was language accessible, it was in a convenient location that was accessible. We took the time to listen to what were the unique needs of the community that we let them define to us. As DA, I want to understand what are the safety concerns that the Latino community has. Lastly, I developed a disadvantaged advisory community group. So it’s not something I would talk about like something I would do, I’ve already done it. And not only did I do it so that we could have a diverse group of members but they permanently now have a voice and fixture in the programs, policies, and investments of the Energy Commission and it went so well that other agencies wanted to be a part of it. I would bring that to the DA’s office.”
Ho: “First of all, one of the things that I’d like to do that’s different and has not been done is start-up in neighborhood court. When we look at the statistics we see that Black and Brown juveniles are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. Whether they are victims or they end up as defendants. What can we do? How can we stop the school-to-prison pipeline and stop the intergenerational toxicity and trauma? One of the things I propose we do is start a neighborhood court. I’ve talked to the restorative justice organization in Yolo County that is doing that very thing. Let’s say you have two juveniles that get into a fight, instead of filing it within the juvenile system and having criminal charges, what we do instead is divert this case to a community neighborhood court where they would have a discussion about what is going to make this right. Whether it’s counseling, it’s treatment, an apology letter, whatever it is it gets implemented. It will never get filed in the DA’s office. We start with our juveniles and then elevate that and work towards that on the adult side.”
Q: What aspects of the criminal justice system, if any, do you believe are in need of reform by the legislature or by other means. Relatedly, what efforts would you hope to undertake as DA in addressing these issues in need of reform?
Ho: “Last year … legislation was passed unanimously. What it did was provide funding for unhoused individuals that committed certain crimes and provide mental health and drug addiction diversion. Unfortunately, it was vetoed. What I would do is talk to Senator Kevin McCarty to build up a coalition to get started on that initiative again. I’ve been engaged in this for years. One of the programs at the DA’s office is the CORE program. An individual that has committed several offenses is offered an opportunity for treatment through the CORE program.
Mathews: “One area where we need reform is domestic violence. It’s unfortunate that after 20 years of experience that it’s unknown that organizations such as WEAVE do have a collaboration with law enforcement so it’s not something new or novel to have them embedded. I know this because I’ve worked very closely with domestic violence. One priority is reducing the violence against women. We’ve seen the number of crimes against women increase, particularly sexual assault. We have to be tougher when there’s a restraining order that’s given to make sure that abusers do not have guns in their hands. That is a tragedy that we’ve recently seen in our community. We need leaders to acknowledge that maybe the victim did all she could do but the system did not. Particularly against women of color who are often not protected. Also, Assemblymember McCarty is working on a new bill that is going to focus on reform for those that are suffering from substance abuse disorder. I’m proud to have his endorsement so we can work together. In that bill, it has a pilot program but because leadership doesn’t have an effective relationship, Sacramento County is not included in that pilot program. Those are funds and resources that we won’t have. We also need reform in our gun legislation. We have an epidemic of ghost guns. We go after the people who have guns on the street but we don’t go after those who facilitate putting the guns into the hands of the people on the street. So I’ll work with the Attorney General to get ghost guns and weapons of war off the streets.”
Q: “Do you believe diversity is important to improve access to justice and equity under the law and if so why? Would you pursue a policy to increase the number of employees in the DA’s office who identify as people of color or other marginalized groups?
Ho: “We need diverse perspectives and reflect the community that we serve. I have hired, recruited, interviewed, and supervised prosecutors. I have worked to expand our hiring practices and numbers. Before I thought about running, I hosted a panel discussion at several law schools so we could increase the number of applicants and prosecutors from different areas.”
Mathews: “Absolutely. We know the more diverse experiences and diverse voices we have, they go and help shape a better criminal justice system that reflects the community. Why hasn’t the current leadership in the DAs office prioritized this as a policy? If there has been an increase in hires, why are people still feeling a gross disparity in how justice is achieved in Sacramento County? We need a long-term commitment to diversity, not just popping in and out and checking a box that approach does not work. When I saw the disparities at the Energy Commission, I created the diversity policy for that agency. When I talk to people who are immigrants or noncitizens, I know it’s not a monolithic experience. We need a leader who isn’t just talking about it, but doing it.”
Q: “Non-citizens are often left at a disadvantage in comparison to their citizen counterparts whether as a victim, witness, or a defendant in the criminal justice system. What measures would you take to increase access to justice, due process, and fairness for non-citizen victims and defendants? Specifically, what would you do to develop a trusting relationship with the immigrant community in Sacramento County?”
Ho: “As an immigrant with family members who were afraid of being deported, it is very personal to me. We have to be concerned with those who have been charged with a crime and will face deportation consequences as a result. We need to make sure that those individuals are informed, fully of their rights. There were certain instances in the past where they were not informed they would face deportation consequences. When we have individuals who were not informed of their rights, we will engage with the attorney, modify their sentence, and their plea so they don’t get deported.”
Mathews: “The first thing is valuing the voices from outside of the DA’s office. What I’m hearing from defense attorneys in Sacramento is that not enough is being done. What I’m hearing from is focusing on immigration consequences and that’s not being done. When you talk to the defense bar, they say that’s not what they’re seeing and that’s what they would want in a DA. As DA, what I would do is recognize that the immigrant experience is not the same. Unfortunately, my opponent’s experiences have led him to believe that we need more police officers in communities. The people who I’ve talked to that have experienced that fear, not wanting to go to the door, strongly disagree with that. I would make sure I am continuing those conversations and understand what safety means for immigrants in the community to make sure we’re working in partnership to achieve that. I would help prosecutors understand what are the immigration consequences throughout the entire criminal justice process. Not waiting until it goes to a post-conviction unit but while we have cases now.”