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Choosing Adam Schiff For California Attorney General Would Be Ignoring What Californians Want

The U.S. representative has been a chief architect of mass incarceration in the state and an instigator of racial injustice.

Rep. Adam Schiff on Aug. 18, 2020. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As California Governor Gavin Newsom faces a recall effort and a double-digit drop in approval ratings, he is poised to make one of the most consequential decisions of his career: selecting the state’s next attorney general.

California’s attorney general serves as both top cop and lead lawyer representing the Golden State’s 40 million residents in a breathtaking range of cases, including abuses of civil rights, capital punishment litigation, environmental crimes, and voter protection cases. The role also serves as an important political springboard. Consider the state’s last three attorneys general: former Governor Jerry Brown; Vice President Kamala Harris; and Xavier Becerra, whom President Biden nominated to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, creating the opening that Newsom must fill. There have also been historic fighters for justice in this role. Stanley Mosk, who as a Superior Court judge struck down racial covenants denying Black people housing, established the civil rights division in the state Department of Justice during his tenure as attorney general. 

A diverse and impressively credentialed list of potential candidates is circulating around the Sacramento rumor mill: Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu are a few examples. There also is one name in the mix who would make a uniquely poor choice for a state that’s facing interrelated policing, incarceration, and racial equity crises: U.S. Representative Adam Schiff.

Most of the country knows Schiff as a resistance icon who spearheaded Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. In California, though, we know Adam Schiff as a chief architect of mass incarceration and an instigator of racial injustice. As a state legislator, Schiff authored over two dozen bills to directly increase the reach and punitiveness of the criminal legal system, including bills to allow children as young as 14 to be tried as adults, expand California’s notoriously racist three-strikes law, and make hiring “unauthorized aliens” a crime that could land a person in prison for four years.

More recently, as a member of Congress, Schiff supported the 2017 Thin Blue Line legislation, siding with the bill’s 21 Republican co-sponsors and against most Democrats in the House. The bill, which sought to expand use of the federal death penalty, was opposed by prominent civil rights and racial justice groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Schiff also crafted and championed a congressional resolution commending then-Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton—under whom “stop and frisk” policing surged, resulting in widespread racial profiling, increased arrests for minor infractions, and use of force against civilians.

Schiff’s retrograde record stands in stark contrast to the voice of California voters, as expressed more clearly through the passage of Propositions 36, 47 and 57, all of which rolled back extreme sentences issued as part of the same “tough on crime” style legislation that Schiff championed when he served in the state legislature. In November, California voters roundly rejected a well-funded measure aimed at watering down the reforms these ballot measures ushered in. 

This reform-minded energy in California does not mean that its criminal legal system operates in a fair and just manner. In fact, quite the opposite. Most of the state’s prisons are over maximum capacity. The Los Angeles County jail population has risen over its capacity limit again. Police shootings of unarmed people, especially Black men, occur with alarming frequency. And racial inequities define every step of the justice process. Black people make up 6 percent of California’s total population, but 27 percent of its prison population. Black residents are stopped at 2.5 times the rate of white people and searched at three times the rate of white people. In San Francisco, Black residents are stopped at a rate five times higher than their share of the population.

Against this backdrop, the next attorney general of California will inherit the broader public mandate to dismantle mass incarceration, root out racial injustice, and create real community safety. Adam Schiff’s unconscionable record on criminal and racial justice issues is disqualifying. That’s why I, along with 40 key racial justice leaders and organizations throughout the state, penned an open letter to Governor Newsom, urging him to reject Schiff for the job and making clear that Schiff’s appointment would be viewed, especially by Black and Latinx communities, as a betrayal of the governor’s expressed commitment to equal justice.

Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California.