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California’s district attorneys at odds with voters over criminal justice reform

District attorneys want to keep an outdated system alive.

California’s district attorneys at odds with voters over criminal justice reform

District attorneys want to keep an outdated system alive.


new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fair Punishment Project shines a light on elected district attorneys in California who are frequently at odds with their constituents. According to the report, which goes hand in hand with the ACLU’s new ‘Hey, Meet Your DA!’ campaign, these elected officials continue to ignore voters’ desire to rethink law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the Golden State.

According to the report, Californians passed four ballot measures between 2012 and 2016 to make the criminal justice system less harsh. They voted to reform the state’s notorious Three Strikes Law, which imposed mandatory 25-year sentences for three-time felons, no matter what their crimes were. Voters also legalized recreational marijuanareclassified multiple property and drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, supported more parole opportunities for prisoners, and empowered judges to decide whether or not kids should be funneled into juvenile or adult courts. But the vast majority of the state’s 58 elected district attorneys opposed the measures; none of the issues on the table received support from more than three of the prosecutors.

The report highlights why this discrepancy between voters’ and district attorneys’ policy positions matters. In California and every other U.S. state, district attorneys are fueling mass incarceration. They decide whether or not a person should be charged for an offense and what those charges should be, which can have a huge impact on possible sentences. In the past year few years, Californians have ultimately voted to reduce the number of people behind bars and reconsider who should be sent there in the first place. And yet district attorneys are overwhelmingly against such an overhaul of the system, favoring tough-on-crime law enforcement over diversion, rehabilitation, and second chances.

“For decades district attorneys and prosecutors have been the primary drivers of America’s devastating mass incarceration problem, operating with little transparency,” Bill Cobb, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a press release.

But despite their immense influence on law enforcement and public safety in local communities, district attorneys aren’t typically on the minds of people headed to the voting booth. Unlike police officers patrolling the streets and making arrests every day, district attorneys have minimal contact with the communities they serve. They typically operate behind closed doors and aren’t forthcoming about their decision-making, meaning the hundreds, thousands, and sometimes millions of people under their jurisdiction know very little about who they are and what they do. Voters subsequently don’t realize that these government officials are adamantly opposed to change.

The ACLU hopes its new campaign will help constituents better understand the role that district attorneys play in their respective communities. ‘Hey, Meet Your DA!’ features a profile of every district attorney in California, breaking down when they entered office and their positions on each of the four ballot measures.

“This campaign is important, because it’s imperative that voters in California are equipped with the information and tools they need to effectively engage their district attorneys and know how to hold them accountable for problematic practices and unjust systems,” said Cobb.

Between 2010 and 2015, California’s prison population declined drastically, in large part due to voters supporting the four criminal justice policy proposals. But there are still 131,363 in-state prisoners who are disproportionately Black and Latino and cost the state $75,560 a year — each. For the number of prisoners to continue to fall, California residents can vote for additional policy changes that make the system more fair. But they must also know who their district attorneys are, what these prosecutors stand for, and vote for the candidate who best represents their interests.

Safe injection sites save lives, but most U.S. politicians are still running scared

Safe injection sites save lives, but most U.S. politicians are still running scared


Tens of thousands of people are dying every year. The President recently declared it a national emergency. Yet most politicians in the U.S. are still shying away from an empirically proven way to save lives claimed by the ever-growing opioid epidemic: supervised injection facilities.

Sixty-six cities across the world have opened these facilities, which permit intravenous drug users to inject themselves under medical supervision, while providing access to sterile injection equipment, medical and social work staff, health care, and information about managing or ending addiction. Opponents argue that de-stigmatizing opioid injection at these facilities will increase drug abuse and addiction, and send a message that the government condones drug use.

To settle those fears, one need only look to Vancouver, where a government-funded safe injection facility called Insite has successfully operated since 2003. Research shows that Insite has slowed the spread of HIV, reduced overdose deaths, and contributed to the decreased use of drugs in Vancouver. Attuned to Insite’s success, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine approved recommendations to open two safe injection sites in January. The facilities would be the first to legally open in the U.S.

“The crisis is growing beyond anything we have seen before,” Murray told The Seattle Times. “We can do something about that.”

Opposition to initiatives like that in Seattle often come from a wide array of politicians, academics, and law enforcement officials. But in Seattle, King County District Attorney Dan Satterberg has consistently supported the project. In May, Satterberg testified before supporters and opponents at a meeting of the King County Council’s Health, Housing and Human Services committee.

“I was part of the crack-cocaine response back in the 1980s,” said Satterberg. “The response was the War on Drugs. I think everyone can admit that that was the wrong response.”

In Philadelphia, leading candidate for district attorney Larry Krasner offered his support for these sites as the city began cleaning up ‘El Campamento,’ a half-mile stretch of land along the railroad where users have bought and used heroin for years. “#ElCampamento cleanup is long overdue,” tweeted Krasner. “But we can’t just sweep opioid crisis from one spot to another. Supervised injection facilities work.”

In spite of the Seattle project’s approval in January, actually opening the sites has proved to be an uphill battle. On Thursday, county officials announced that an initiative to ban the creation of safe injection sites received enough signatures to make it on the ballot.

Vancouver’s Insite has also faced strong opposition over the years, in spite of its success. When the program began, the Canadian government granted Insite an exemption from the law that would otherwise criminalize drug use at the site. But in 2006, when conservative Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister, the new administration tried to repeal the exemption and shut the site down. In a landmark 2011 decision, the Canadian Supreme Court denied the Harper administration’s attempts to interfere with Insite — thanks in large part to the large body of peer-reviewed studies examining its impact and measuring its undeniable success.

“During its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada,” the Court said. “The effect of denying the services of Insite to the population it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics.”

As the U.S. grapples with the growing crisis of opioid overdose deaths, the body of research from Vancouver should be a welcome roadmap for lawmakers and advocates seeking answers. The data is there — politicians just need to pay attention to it.

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UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri

Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch

UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri


UPDATED Aug. 22, 2017, 3:00 p.m.

On Tuesday afternoon just hours before Marcellus Williams was scheduled to be executed in Missouri, Governor Eric Greitens issued a stay pending an investigation into new DNA evidence presented by Williams’ attorneys. Greitens announced that he would appoint a board of inquiry to review Williams’ case and issue a report.

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” said Greitens in a statement. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

No forensic evidence or eye witness testimony links Williams to the 1998 murder of reporter Felicia Gayle. Yet without Greitens’ intervention, Williams would have been executed for Gayle’s murder, which he was convicted of in 2001. Williams has always maintained his innocence, and new evidence shows that male DNA found on the murder weapon belongs not to him, but to an unidentified person. But the Missouri Supreme Court refused to examine this evidence, which was not available during the trial that led to his conviction.

While all of this might sound outrageous — the execution of a possibly-innocent man — in the U.S. criminal justice system, it is disturbingly common. In particular, Williams’ story is a microcosm of the larger systemic injustices that infect the capital sentencing process, and of the racial bias that plays out in St. Louis County.

Williams, who is black, was convicted of killing Gayle, a white woman, by a jury comprised of 11 white jurors and one black juror. His conviction hinged exclusively on the testimony of Williams’ ex-girlfriend Laura Asaro and Henry Cole, a man he shared a jail cell with. Cole claimed that while locked up together, Williams confessed to murdering Gayle. Asaro told the court that she saw scratches on Williams’ neck at the time of the murder, which she said were made by Gayle. (No DNA evidence tying Williams to Gayle was found under her fingernails.) Williams’ lawyers argue that both witnesses were influenced by Gayle’s family, which offered a $10,000 reward.

Six of the seven black potential jurors in Williams’ trial were dismissed by the trial prosecutors. The ease with which prosecutors exclude black jurors in capital trials isn’t limited to Missouri, but the problem is particularly acute in St. Louis County. In the case of Andre Cole, who was executed in 2015 after being convicted of killing his ex-wife’s boyfriend, a black prospective juror was dismissed by a prosecutor for being divorced. The prosecutor argued that experience could unduly influence the potential juror’s impression of Cole’s case, which involved his ex-wife. Yet a divorced white juror was allowed to remain on the case.

The racial dynamics in Gayle’s murder also stacked the deck against Williams. In cases that involve white female victims, “execution is 14 times more likelycompared with when the victim is a black male,” Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty director Staci Pratt told Al Jazeera.

Williams was prosecuted by St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch’s office. If McCulloch’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same prosecutor who failed to secure an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. On Monday night, McCulloch defended the conviction of Williams, and told Fox2 News that the new DNA doesn’t rule him out as the murderer.

“Based on the other, non-DNA evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward,” said McCulloch.

Hope for mercy for Williams now rests with the board of inquiry appointed by Greitens.

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