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In Liberal California, A Crusader Against Criminal Justice Reform

Assemblymember Jim Cooper is pushing to roll back changes that have successfully reduced incarceration.

Photo of Assemblymember Jim Cooper
California Assemblymember Jim Cooper Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from

In November 2017, Sacramento County District Attorney Ann-Marie Schubert, Democratic Assemblymember Jim Cooper, and activist Marc Klaas, stood at a lectern and announced that they were drafting a ballot measure. The measure, the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018, would roll back the criminal justice reforms that state voters had approved in recent years, reforms that had put California at the cutting edge of reducing incarceration. 

Cooper, reading from a script, declared: “Recent changes to California law have also allowed persons who repeatedly steal to face very few consequences regardless of their criminal record or how often they steal.” He went on to argue that those who commit nonviolent crimes are often “linked to more serious violent crimes of rape and murder” in the future.

Under the organizational umbrella Keep California Safe, Cooper, alongside other pro-law enforcement elected officials like Schubert, has waged a public campaign against successful criminal justice reforms. A 2017 study confirmed that despite slight upticks in the state’s crime rates in recent years, crime remains historically low. (Experts believe that some of the slight uptick in nonviolent crime could be related to changes in the law.) But according to Cooper, reforms like Proposition 47, which reduced certain nonviolent offenses to misdemeanors, and Proposition 57, which increased good-time credits for those serving prison sentences, have opened the door to “repeat offenders” who commit low-level crimes. Cooper did not respond to an interview request or a list of specific questions for this story.

In a state often stereotyped as liberal, Cooper represents the pro-law enforcement forces at work, and the discontent stewing in conservative suburbs far from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Although the Keeping California Safe Act did not make the 2018 ballot, it is set to go before voters in 2020. To understand the anti-reform movement building in California, you have to understand Jim Cooper.

Before Jim Cooper was elected to the California State Assembly in 2014, he spent 30 years as a deputy in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and an overlapping 14 years on the Elk Grove City Council, where he set himself up as a moderate, business-friendly Democrat in a region where voters are worried about water rights, agricultural employment, and reducing their taxes. As a sheriff’s deputy, his job was to carry out what were then California’s extreme tough-on-crime measures, especially during the decade he spent focused on drug and gang enforcement. 

I busted my butt to put as many people in jail as I could.

Assemblymember Jim Cooper quoted in the Sacramento Bee

Early in his tenure, questions about Cooper’s integrity began to arise. Initially, Cooper worked as an undercover deputy setting up drug stings, which he still uses to amp up his credibility in debates over criminal justice. “I busted my butt to put as many people in jail as I could,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 2015. This experience is a point of pride for Cooper, especially in a state where there’s only one other legislator who is ex-law enforcement. According to the same Sacramento Bee story, Cooper’s office features a photo of his younger self “lying in a pile of marijuana plants with a machete in one hand and a handgun in the other.” 

Jim Cooper later made his political mark as a captain in charge of Sacramento’s jail between 2001 and 2003, when allegations of negligence and abuse were flying. Under Cooper, there was a spike in prisoner suicides, prompting a grand jury investigation (which did not name Cooper, though both deaths in the investigation occurred under his watch) and a lawsuit where Cooper said, in a deposition, that his deputies were blameless. (Suicides went from one per year to six hangings and one overdose between January and September 2002 alone.) In 2003, the county’s suicide prevention task force offered 69 anti-suicide improvements for the jail. 

There were accusations, too, of excessive force, routine strip searches, and women being forced to “dance” for the surveillance cameras. The county paid $15 million to settle a class action lawsuit, which did not name Cooper, though he oversaw the jail for part of the time period covered in the class action. Cooper argued that the suicides were high because of the increased “media attention,” and has consistently denied responsibility for any other illegal behavior by deputies in the jail. 

Alongside these systemic problems, there have always been concerns about his behavior. In 2009, when Cooper ran for sheriff, allegations emerged that in 2005, a sheriff’s deputy accused Cooper of sexual harassment, alleging that he told her she needed some “jungle love” before her wedding. Cooper denies that this incident was harassment.

Cooper was initially elected to the Elk Grove City Council in 2000 while still employed by the sheriff’s department, and he drew harsh criticism when he voted in favor of contracts worth millions of dollars for the department that employed him. (He had received legal advice that he should abstain from voting because of his conflict of interest.) Other council members also said Cooper “created an atmosphere of intimidation and used vulgarity on numerous occasions.” In 2004, Cooper was warned that his failure to follow conflict-of-interest rules could be charged as a felony. A 2005 grand jury investigation described this behavior as “reprehensible” in addition to “unprofessional, abusive and inappropriate.” (Cooper has maintained this was politically motivated.) Cooper also ran for sheriff in 2010 and lost by about 5,000 votes to Scott Jones, who is still the sheriff in Sacramento. Then, Cooper turned his eyes to an empty Assembly seat.

At about the time Cooper was running for election, a radical change was moving California from its tough-on-crime past toward more progressive policies intended to reduce mass incarceration. California’s recent reforms have turned a state with famously overcrowded and violent prisons into one at the vanguard of prison reform. Between 1978 and 1998, California prisons grew 660 percent, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. In 1994, the state passed the Three Strikes Initiative, which gave a mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence to anyone convicted of any felony after two previous convictions for “violent” felonies and resulted in a rapid increase of people in prison. Just one decade after the law passed, about a quarter of state prisoners were there because of Three Strikes. It also added $500 million per year to the state’s correctional budget. 

Because of the overwhelming size of the California criminal justice apparatus, law enforcement has exercised enormous power over state politics. Almost no governor has been elected without the backing of the major law enforcement lobby groups. The biggest, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents state prison guards, spent about $10.7 million on campaign contributions and independent expenditures over the last decade. This included $2 million supporting Jerry Brown in 2010, $1 million on Gavin Newsom last year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual State Assembly races and pro-law enforcement initiatives. 

In 2011, things began to change. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Brown v. Plata that California’s prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded. Under court order, Sacramento rushed to reduce the prison population, which led to the policy called “realignment” encoded in Assembly Bill 109—basically, returning incarcerated people serving less than three years to county jails. Governor Brown threw his weight behind criminal justice reform, backing AB 109 in 2011, Prop 47 in 2014, and Prop 57 in 2016. Californians followed, and have consistently backed reforms for the last five years. Although crime everywhere in America has reached historic lows, California has experienced one of the most impressive turnarounds. 

Law enforcement never fell in line with the reform movement. Instead, since AB 109 passed, district attorneys, sheriffs, and police chiefs have grumbled among themselves that these reforms were putting pressure on their counties to house those convicted of low-level crimes, and to improve parole supervision upon release. Officers are said to feel unmotivated to make “catch and release” arrests. Some prosecutors say they can no longer threaten people with felony charges if they refuse treatment or plea deals. A deep well of discontent opened, mostly confined to the Facebook comments of pro-law enforcement groups.

“It is important not to underestimate how seriously both prosecutors and police organizations take the very recent and still emerging popular turn against the politics of ‘fear of crime,’” Jonathan Simon, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied law enforcement trends in California, told The Appeal. 

This discontent has its base in counties like Cooper’s. The Ninth Assembly District covers the suburban area south of Sacramento all the way down to Lodi, in San Joaquin County. He is from Elk Grove just outside of Sacramento, a place where law enforcement has strong clout. While nearby San Francisco teems with liberals—consistent voters for criminal justice reform and the bulk of the volunteers at nearby San Quentin prison—Sacramento is closer to where more prison guards actually live. Elk Grove, which makes up the bulk of the district, votes consistently Democratic, but is substantially less liberal than the Bay Area or Los Angeles, although the crime rate in Elk Grove is lower than California’s major cities. 

“Put a cop in the capital.” This was Cooper’s slogan in his campaign to be elected to the State Assembly in 2014.

Since his election to the legislature in 2014, Cooper has been a reliable vote for law enforcement, even when it alienated him from his party. When members of the Legislative Black Caucus supported bills that responded to a number of police shootings, Cooper opposed them all. He was, for example, the only Black legislator to abstain from voting in favor of a law that would eliminate the use of grand juries in police shooting investigations. He has also opposed bills that would increase data transparency in police departments. 

Often, Cooper simply skips votes, as he has done on a number of criminal justice reform measures and other key Democratic issues. Early in his tenure, he didn’t vote on a measure intended to increase transparency around CalGang, the state database of alleged gang members. In 2018, he did not vote at least nine times, including on key bills on sexual harassment and one that would provide healthcare benefits to undocumented children. In 2017, he skipped at least eight votes, including a bill that passed prohibiting the use of physical restraints on children and pregnant women without just cause and a bill that protects children under 15 from police interrogation without counsel

He uses charged language to make people feel angry, vulnerable, and reactive, which then promotes the policies he wants.

Lara Bazelon University of San Francisco

The votes he does cast tend to reflect his donors’ interests. Since 2014, Cooper has pulled in $3.4 million in contributions, significant for a relatively new state legislator. Most of his donors are bail bond agents, law enforcement organizations, public sector unions, and corporate interests. A variety of law enforcement lobbying organizations like county sheriff associations and the Peace Officers Research Association of California are generous, and their support gives Cooper additional legitimacy with law enforcement. 

Lara Bazelon, a professor of law and director of the criminal juvenile justice and racial justice clinical programs at the University of San Francisco, describes Cooper as an “old guard reactionary with serious political clout.” 

“He uses his law enforcement background to tell these torrid tales of criminals run amok as a scare tactic … he uses charged language to make people feel angry, vulnerable, and reactive, which then promotes the policies he wants,” she said. “It’s all about propping up mass incarceration and fighting change.”

In addition to supporting the Keeping California Safe Act, Cooper also voted against the recent adjustments to the felony murder rule that would protect people from murder convictions if they did not commit the murder themselves. He opposed a bipartisan law requiring search warrants for emails. Alongside law enforcement, he opposed a bill that would limit asset forfeiture. (And when the legislature passed the bill, Senate Bill 443, he proposed his own measure that would allow law enforcement to seize marijuana grow houses.) “His positions are as predictable as a traffic light turning from yellow to red,” Bazelon said.

The bills he proposed were often ones that law enforcement wanted, like a measure that would increase criminal penalties for owners of unregistered guns. It passed in 2016. He also supported a bill that would make crimes against law enforcement officers a hate crime, and a bill that would require people accused of some misdemeanors to provide their DNA and fingerprints.

Sometimes Cooper’s advocacy became stunts. During a hearing about internet privacy, he held up a sheaf of paper, pretending it was a guide to “how to practice child love,” and said the bill would make it harder to prosecute crimes against children like “bestiality, bondage, kids screaming.” (Law enforcement was neutral on the proposal.)

Even moderates and conservatives tend to shy away from Cooper’s extreme positions. In 2015, Cooper opposed packaging labels and other regulations for medical marijuana that had been already approved by law enforcement and were sponsored by Republican Tom Lackey, an ex-highway patrol officer. In 2015, he vigorously opposed marijuana legalization, boasting that he eschewed all drugs, even coffee. California voters approved legalization. And, in 2018, he proposed a bill that would levy hefty fines on marijuana retailers. (The bill never made it out of committee.)

In another example, the California Retailers Association, a trade group for store owners, was originally on board with Cooper’s Keeping California Safe bill because it would increase penalties for shoplifting. They split ways with him when they determined that his changes went too far. Bill Dombrowski, then president of the California Retailers Association, said in 2017 that he wanted to avoid a general fight about crime and punishment, especially one that would pit him against the governor, who backed both Prop 47 and 57. He argued that his group didn’t want to get involved in “that fight,” referring to any proposed link between crime in California and criminal justice reforms that were supported by most communities. Ultimately, retailers abandoned Cooper’s proposal for one by Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer that would make “organized retail theft” a “wobbler”—a crime that could be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor. The resulting bill, Assembly Bill 1065, was signed by Governor Brown in 2018.

Last year, there were rumblings that local Democrats would fight his nomination. Cooper’s sexual harassment allegation resurfaced, and local activists accused him of failing to report the accusation. (Cooper denies the incident was sexual harassment and the sheriff’s office has not released records on this incident.) Harry He, a businessman in his 20s, emerged as a contender, but soundly lost the primary. When asked about the election, He explained that the California Democratic Party “has a platform that is clearly written and he [Cooper] does not support major parts of that platform, especially criminal justice and environmental issues.” He added: “Jim’s consistent opposition to criminal justice reforms stems from his professional career as a sheriff’s deputy, perhaps he has a sentimental attachment to keeping things the way they are in law enforcement.” 

Cooper will face his next primary election in March 2020 and a general election that November.

Most voters don’t know who Jim Cooper is and likely just vote for him because he is the incumbent.

Harry He challenger in Democratic primary

Cooper may benefit from some constituents’ concerns about the slight increase in crime, mostly nonviolent crimes like car break-ins. While two solid studies have found that Prop 47 did not contribute to an increase in violent crime, that doesn’t stop people like Cooper from claiming that it does. “We’ve got some issues to fix,” Cooper told the Independent Voters Network, a nonprofit, centrist web publication, claiming without proof that California was “letting out about 100 lifers every month and have been for the past year.”

He’s personal take is that Cooper’s election relied on the apathy of voters: “Most voters don’t know who Jim Cooper is and likely just vote for him because he is the incumbent. … The bottom line is that if we could engage the population, educate them and get them to vote for their values, there would be real change in this Assembly district. There are many good, qualified leaders in this Assembly district that do not run, because they fear losing. I hope that changes.”

Bazelon believes that Cooper’s views are “irresponsible” and his actions are “just a mouthpiece for law enforcement with no facts.” She added, “I think he’s trying to use language to reach people’s most base, reactive emotions about crime. And it’s purposeful.”