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Criminal Justice Reformers Get A Chilly Reception In California

Across the state, most incumbents successfully fended off progressive challengers during the June 5 primary.

California’s Super Tuesday election brought disappointing results for candidates hoping to reform the state’s criminal justice system. In recent years, California has taken a series of steps designed to make the system more fair: shortening sentences for incarcerated people, for instance, and diverting low-level offenders from lengthy stays in prison. But the state’s district attorneys have consistently stood in the way of reform.

Heading into yesterday’s primary, a handful of challengers hoping to unseat prosecutors across the state aimed to change that dynamic. Meanwhile, several reformer candidates also vied for sheriff and judicial positions, looking to remake the path from arrest to adjudication. But by the end of Tuesday evening, it was clear that the nascent national movement to elect reformer district attorneys was heading for major losses. Below, we round up the major criminal justice races and ballot measures from across California.

In San Diego County, public defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright is poised to lose to incumbent District Attorney Summer Stephan. Stephan, who the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors appointed last year, was heavily supported by law enforcement groups that threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. Stephan rose to prominence as a “human trafficking” expert, but has instead focused almost solely on criminalizing sex work, saying she believes there’s no such thing as “voluntary” sex work. Jones-Wright ran on a platform of reforming the use of cash bail, ending the criminalization of homelessness, and testing the county’s large backlog of rape kits. In the county’s sheriff’s race, incumbent Sheriff Bill Gore seemed likely to defeat reform candidate Dave Myers. Gore has presided over a county jail system where since 2007 more than 120 people have died in custody . Myers, a commander at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department who was running on a platform to decriminalize homelessness and increase drug treatment for arrested users, said he was reassigned to a “broom closet” after the announcement of his candidacy.

In San Francisco County, four public defenders running to unseat Superior Court judges appointed by Republican governors were handily defeated. The candidates, who were all either Black or Latinx, faced pushback from local Democrats worried about the politicization of the bench. The candidates argued they were trying bring new perspectives to a city with stark racial disparities in policing. Local reformers did rack up two wins, however: Proposition F, which guarantees the right to legal counsel for residents facing eviction, won with 56 percent of the vote after a strong push by the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Proposition H, which would have given San Francisco police officers less restrictive guidelines for their use of stun guns, and was promoted by the officers’ union, was defeated.

In Alameda County, incumbent Nancy O’Malley handily defeated civil rights lawyer Pamela Price. O’Malley faced criticism after it was revealed that her campaign had accepted $10,000 from Fremont cops while investigating them in connection to two fatal shootings. Her challenger, Price, highlighted the racial disparities in O’Malley’s charging practices, promising wholesale changes in the way the county prosecutes young people.

In Sacramento County, Anne-Marie Schubert, the incumbent district attorney, fended off  Noah Phillips, a prosecutor who ran on a platform calling for increased police accountability. Schubert, a Republican, had been endorsed by many of the city’s Democratic politicians, but came under severe scrutiny after the police killing of Stephon Clark in March. Schubert then centered her campaign on taking credit for the apprehension of the alleged “Golden State Killer,” running campaign ads that said, “She protects us.”

In Santa Clara County, Judge Aaron Persky was recalled from the bench following backlash by activists over what they viewed as a “lenient” sentence of a Stanford student to six months in jail for sexually assaulting and attempting to rape an unconscious woman outside a party at the university. But critics of the recall say its supporters underestimate the impact of the sentence on the life of the student, Brock Turner, and are seeking vengeance over justice.

In Contra Costa County, incumbent District Attorney Diana Becton is most likely headed to a runoff against Paul Graves in November. Becton, a judge who was appointed district attorney in September, had strong support from reform groups, who applauded her stances on pursuing treatment instead of jail time, and changing how the county prosecutes low-level crimes. Graves, who was supported by law enforcement groups, spent 22 years as a prosecutor at the Contra Costa DA’s office, where his former boss, Mark Peterson, had resigned in disgrace after taking thousands of dollars from his campaign account and spending it on meals, clothes, and other personal needs.

In Yolo County, it appears incumbent Jeff Reisig has defeated public defender Dean Johansson, although with a high amount of absentee ballots still out, the vote may not be final for weeks. Reisig is part of a statewide movement to roll back parts of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for certain crimes, and he is actively circumventing it by charging people with felonies for low-level offenses.

And finally, in San Bernardino County, it appears that challenger Jason Anderson has defeated incumbent Michael Ramos. Anderson, the most conservative of the reform candidates on the ballot this June, has called for more resources to veterans and mental health courts as well as bolstering drug court funding. Ramos has been a vocal death penalty supporter, and has spoken out against the possible exoneration of Kevin Cooper, who was convicted in a high-profile murder case rife with police misconduct.