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Who Gets To Proclaim The Progressive Prosecutor Mantle?

Interim San Francisco D.A. Suzy Loftus claims to be a “progressive,” but her long record as a prosecutor reveals an all-too-familiar path chosen by establishment-types who have little interest in disrupting the status quo.

On November 5th, San Francisco voters will elect a new district attorney. It’s a four-way race with two front-runners, including interim D.A. Suzy Loftus. Loftus has claimed that progressivism, and the title of progressive prosecutor, forms the core of her platform. But a closer look at both Loftus’s background and her recent behavior suggest that she may be part of a small group that claims the “progressive prosecutor” mantel while working in the shadows to maintain the status quo. 

Loftus is a former prosecutor who worked as legal counsel for the San Francisco sheriff’s department during the botched “fight club” investigation. Even though she hasn’t been elected, she’s already started rolling the office backwards. Though she claims to believe in criminal justice reform, she immediately eliminated a diversion program for first-time offenders accused of driving under the influence, without citing any evidence that the program is reducing public safety. In her first week, she also filed charges against a homeless individual for marijuana possession and for violating a rarely-used ordinance that makes it a crime to sit on a public sidewalk.  

Loftus promises to be different. But her long record as a prosecutor isn’t encouraging. As an assistant district attorney, she used money bail to lock up low-income defendants. As DA Kamala Harris’s chief of policy, she played a crucial role in an administration that championed laws to criminally charge the parents of habitually truant children and to hand over undocumented juveniles to ICE. She followed Harris to the Attorney General’s Office, where she served as General Counsel and the Assistant Director of the Law Enforcement Division. During Loftus’ tenure, the AG’s office defended the constitutionality of the death penalty, and fought to uphold wrongful convictions and deny exonerees compensation

Loftus isn’t prepared to stand up to law enforcement, even those who have been accused of racism and excessive violence. Instead, she defends them. She has also maintained close ties with disgraced former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. Suhr was forced to resign in 2016, after two separate racist text message scandals and officers under his command fatally shot three people of color in less than a year. Then there is her record on testing rape kits. As part of the San Francisco Police Commission, Loftus oversaw a department that had hundreds of rape kits sitting untested for years in a storage facility.  

Voters in Harris County, Texas, may advise San Franciscans to look closely at someone who claims the mantle of progressivism before buying into it. Veteran prosecutor Kim Ogg ran in 2016 on a promise for change and fairness to the justice system. Headlines touted her as one of the many who would transform prosecution. And they have been disappointed. Ogg recently filed an objection to a historic settlement that curtails the county’s use of money bail on misdemeanors. She’s also continued to seek the death penalty and made repeated efforts to hire 100 new prosecutors and expand the reach of her office

Loftus seems to be taking a page from Ogg’s book, helping to enforce the laws that undergird our current system of injustices. The progressive prosecutor label is trending nationally right now. To claim it signals to left-leaning voters that a candidate will break from the failed tough-on-crime policies of the past.  It is no surprise that Loftus wants to ride to victory on this message, which has succeeded in so many other parts of the country, most with much more conservative-leaning voters than the Bay Area.

Electing a prosecutor who uses progressivism as a shield and prosecution as a sword would not be a step forward. Without a critical analysis of their platforms,  the same communities that have been over-policed and over-prosecuted will continue to suffer. Being a progressive prosecutor involves more than touting what have now become safe-to-embrace reforms: ending capital punishment and money bail, or ceasing marijuana prosecutions. It means getting rid of the muscle memory that says lock people up even when we know it won’t make us safe. It means practicing what you preach even when those decisions are unpopular with law enforcement, centrist politicians in your own party, and, at times, your own staff.  

“I stand for something that’s pretty radical,” Loftus has said. “Don’t be on the side of the police or the community.” But there’s nothing radical about a prosecutor refusing to be on the side of the community.

Delivering on a progressive prosecutor platform requires a determination to press forward with sometimes-controversial reforms in the face of resistance. Loftus has shown she won’t do that—she has a long record of staying in the center lane, taking as few risks as possible. That’s not progressive, it is the all-too-familiar path chosen by establishment-types who have little interest in disrupting the status quo.

Patrisse Cullors is co-founder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now, California Director of Real Justice PAC and chair of Reform L.A. Jails.