By David M. Greenwald
Oakland, CA – Three of the four candidates for Alameda County DA appeared on Monday evening for a candidates’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Terry Wiley was not present, but appearing were Pamela Price, Seth Steward, and Jimmie Wilson.
Wiley did submit a two-minute opening statement that was read by the moderator.
Question: How do you intend to ensure transparency and fair treatment of the accused, including improved consideration for mental health issues?
Jimmie Wilson: “This is a training issue that is not going on right now. First of all, we need to have a philosophy to where we train our deputy district attorneys on their ethics and how you handle criminal cases.”
He said that one of the biggest problems right now is “that we are using the complaint to coerce people into pleading guilty which is not an Alameda County problem, it’s a criminal justice problem.” He added, “What I plan to do is train our DAs on how to charge cases, when to charge them. When we talk about diversion, when we talk about getting people into alternative courts, the fact that we overcharge cases limits the number of people that we can get into those courts, especially when we talk about mental health.”
Pamela Price: “Yes. Transparency is at the heart of what we need to establish for the Alameda County DA’s office, which means that we need to establish new standards that we will hold the deputies accountable to. We need to establish and publish metrics that show our decision making process. And this is key on an ongoing basis so that the public knows what we decided to charge, what the charges were, how did we propose the pleas… Right now that is all shrouded in secrecy—it needs to be open to the public.”
She added, “I will focus on the issues around mental illness and those who come into our system. Mental illness is not a crime and mental illness should not be a death sentence as it currently is. And we will work with the families of the seriously mentally ill, as well as other partners, to be able to really focus on how do we address the problems of those suffering from mental illness and/or addiction in our system.”
Seth Steward: “I think this question is a lot about when everybody who used to take math and your teacher always tells you to show your work. That’s exactly what the DA’s office needs to do. It needs to show its work.”
He said currently they are not publishing their data on the website: “There’s not data integrity. We know, for example, from the ACLU and urban peace movement report from last year, that the only data they could find about alternative courts in diversion courts was from 2017 to 2018. And what they found is of the over 55,000 cases that were low level misdemeanors, only 2000 of those cases were warded into any type of alternative court or diversion.”
He called for expanding eligibility into behavioral health court, to drug court, to veterans courts, and “to all of the alternative courts.”
Question: How do you suggest holding police accountable for misconduct when the district attorney’s office relies on them to prosecute cases?
Pamela Price: “I am the only candidate in the race that actually has prosecuted officers civilly and gotten judgments, including punitive damages against people, bad cops who commit misconduct, but I’ve also represented good cops who were courageous and who stood for constitutional policing and understood that they were there to serve the community. So that’s the lens that I bring to my engagement with local law enforcement. I am not afraid to talk to local law enforcement.”
She added, “Yes, I need the officer’s cooperation to prosecute crime, but I want the officer to understand that our goal is justice. It is not just a conviction for a conviction’s sake, and I am an independent actor that I have prosecutorial discretion that I have the right to exercise because I serve the community as well as any officer on the street.”
Seth Steward cited Kim Foxx (the DA in Chicago), who said, “The communities that are most impacted by the criminal justice system, trust it the least.” He said, “That’s exactly right. Here in Alameda County, 44% of the people that are shot by law enforcement are Black, even though Black people only make up, 10 or 11% of the population of Alameda County.”
He said the way to build trust is “to make sure we prosecute officers who violate the law, and the way to do that is have a firewall in the office that separate what you would call the traditional line DAs in the office and the DAs that prosecute officers.”
Jimmie Wilson said, “I am the only candidate in this race that has actually investigated officer-involved shootings. I’m also the only candidate in this race who’s endorsed by the rank-and-file law enforcement agencies. And why that relationship is important is because our police officers serve our community. And as DA, you have a, a huge influence on the way that police officers engage people in the community.”
He said without having a relationship with them, “you will not change the way our community is policed.”
Question: How will you work to decrease the incarceration of Black individuals?
Seth Steward: “I’m going to fight racism advice in the system. I have a whole point on this very specific thing.” First, he said, “identify the policies that are currently in the DA’s office, that exacerbate racist outcomes. By racist outcomes, I mean outcomes that vary by race.”
He said, “One of the policies that I would enforce immediately is ending the death penalty. We know that the death penalty is a racist policy in terms of the type of people and type of cases that get charged. And that’s something that I would end immediately.
“Secondarily, we also know that Black men are incarcerated over 10 times the rate of white men here in the state of California. And that’s something that we have to stop.”
Jimmie Wilson said, “I believe in diversion at the street level.”
He explained, “We need to give our first time offenders and our youth alternatives. I can tell you as a DA who’s been in the office for 17 years, I can look at someone’s rap sheet and you can see that first offense at the juvenile level, how that person was treated impacts how they’re treated throughout their lives. So we need to get people at the front end. So we don’t have to see them at the back end.”
Pamela Price: “When I ran in 2017, we published a position paper called the new Jim Crow in Alameda CA county. And in fact, it was the racial disparities within our criminal justice system that prompted me to run and be the first person to do that since 1966, because Alameda County has a dark deep legacy of over-criminalizing Black and Brown youth. And over-incarcerating Black and Brown people. When we talk about the death penalty, EDA county is number nine in the country in terms of the number of death row inmates that we have prosecuted. And the majority of those have been Black men.”
She said, “I have to break that cycle of racism and Jim Crow in Alameda County—and I will do that.”
Question: Briefly discuss your understanding of the Racial Justice Act and explain any plans you have to implement this new law within the district attorney’s office.
Jimmie Wilson said that the most difficult part of it is changing any type of system. He said it’s “changing policy and changing how we look at the criminal justice system, it only comes from your ability to influence others, your ability to talk to people about the inequities that have on in the criminal justice system.”
He added, “I can tell you philosophically, it is a task to get young DAs, and especially people who have been in this office from the beginning of time, under the same management to change their philosophy of how we do criminal justice in our community.”
Pamela Price said that as a member of the Alameda Democratic Party Central Committee, “We supported the passage of the Racial Justice Act. As a civil rights litigator, I’ve been litigating these issues for 30 years, challenging racism in the justice system.”
She said, “So we know to the extent that our criminal justice system has been infected and riddled with racial disparities, it’s all the way through and through.”
She added, “I’ve been a champion for racial justice since I got arrested in a civil rights demonstration in 1970, and I’ve never wavered in the fact that this country requires that it treat all citizens, all residents, regardless of your race, with dignity, with respect and whether you’ve committed a crime or you’re the victim of a crime in Alameda county, you need to be treated equally.”
Seth Steward: “I absolutely support the Racial Justice Act.” He said, “It’s an incredibly important thing and it’s relatively straightforward. It stands for the proposition if someone was convicted due to racial bias by an attorney or a judge or a law enforcement officer or expert witness, any one of those things, if there’s racially discriminatory language, racial bias in jury selection, all of these things are steps in the criminal justice system that need to be analyzed and addressed. And the racial justice act just does that.”