Thursday, May 17, 2018

It is time to change the Alameda County District Attorney

It has been time for a long time.

In no other race on the June ballot do we have an opportunity to effect a bigger change than the one that is made possible by voting for Pamela Price against the incumbent District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley.

The big is possible because it is the District Attorney who sets the policy of who we prosecute, how we prosecute them, how hard we charge them and what we might do instead of throwing the book at a young offender.

Alameda County is where hundreds of young people get sucked into a vicious circle of crime and punishment with failed rehabilitation and parolee recidivism.

The advice on what we should do to break that pattern is not simple, but it is usually about the same. It is to both try to not put new people into the criminal justice system and to try to get those already in and out of jail to stay out of jail and have a healthy life.

What exactly does that look like?

1 Setting up restorative alternatives to a criminal prosecution, where an offender gets involved in a plan for restitution to victims of their crimes and they are kept in society in a way that includes them turning over a new leaf and becoming contributor in the community.

The normal way to do this is to have a community “group-family” conference where the government, the victim, the perpetrators and relevant friends and neighbors create an individual plan for that offender.

2 Making a place for those on parole and probation in the community. That is hard because people come out of jail or prison broke, homeless and disconnected from jobs, family and community.

The kinds of programs that work usually involve housing and giving people entering the community from incarceration some kind of job. Education and cultural participation also help.

So, what influence does a District Attorney have on such efforts?

To start with, she could decide to not prosecute and do something else instead. It is the DA who can refer a case to restorative justice group-family conferences in lieu of prosecution. It is also the DA would has the discretion to deal with parole violations.

Now maybe you have heard that we are already doing these things in Alameda County.

We are, in pitifully insufficient numbers.

What does happen in significant numbers is the old counterproductive prosecution habits, notably:

  • Prosecuting teens (mostly black) as adults.
  • Charging offenders with the most serious charges possible. Often this comes in the form of claiming the accused committed multiple charges as part of a single event.
  • Charging offenders with serious felonies that they did not commit as a way to coerce a guilty plea to some lesser charge that the accused may or may not have actually done.
  • Measuring a prosecuting attorney’s success by conviction rate and total number of people sentenced.
  • Asking judges for the maximum sentence lengths.
  • Using parole violations to take people off the street, often leaving other crimes unresolved.

There is nothing unusual about such practices in a prosecutor’s office in our country, and Alameda County is not one of the worst offenders by any means. Many of these issues are at the heart of the prosecution reform our whole nation needs. But we do have too much of the business-as-usual prosecution machines in Alameda and we do not stand out as leaders in finding alternatives to harsh punishments nor in backing off from ruthlessly sending large numbers of young people to jail. Take a guess how many of them are black and brown.

From the time of the Little Hoover Commission Report on Parole in 2003 the official advice from our state has been to focus on getting offenders back into the community. The recommendations of that report have not really been put into practice.

Similar recommendations stem from earlier to work done on restorative justice here in the US, some places in Canada and groundbreaking progress in New Zealand.

Here in the Bay Area there has been some serious progress based on restorative justice and community policing, notably in somewhat conservative San Jose and in very left wing Richmond.

Turning our criminal justice system around is a much bigger task than what any DA’s office can do alone. It also requires some serious changes in the practices of our prison system, reformed policing policies and improved services offered by state, county and city governments.

That said, the one elected official who has the most influence in the chain of command, and the most power to break the vicious circles, is the DA who who has the power to prosecute or not. We need more “not”.

Pamela Price has the background and the desire to make headway on the reforms needed. She has been working in the courts to counteract the barrage of prosecution that so many are subjected to. She has been trying to do something about the racial and economic unfairness in a system that is still way too based on merciless punishment.

She may or may not be able to make the needed reforms but she will try, and I am convinced that the incumbent has had every opportunity to make progress, but instead has chosen to be someone who resists change.

The endorsements that she has received speaks poorly of those endorsing. Such endorsements are made as political calculations, not a discussion of policies.

Nancy O’Malley has been part of the problem, no matter what token efforts she has been associated with, and I think it is time for a more forceful advocate for justice that is just.


  1. Thanks for the explanation. i have heard bad things about O'Malley but the issue has never been spelled out

    1. Thanks for a thoughtful post. Agree with what you say...we can do a lot better.