A recent audit revealed that the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), an advocacy group that represents most of the state’s prosecutors, siphoned funds intended for environmental and worker protection cases and instead used them to lobby against criminal justice reform—in effect working to preserve their own power at the expense of public interest litigation.
Now a new statewide poll from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows that a majority of California voters have an unfavorable view of the CDAA, distrust the organization, and believe that it is most interested in protecting its own members over the public:
- Informed of the audit findings, 58% of voters, including 62% of Republicans, said that they find the CDAA either not very or not at all trustworthy;
- 46% of voters, including 53% of Republicans, said that they would be less likely to support a policy if the CDAA is in favor of it, compared to just 19% who said that a CDAA policy endorsement would make their own support more likely;
- 61% of voters, including 71% of Republicans, believe that the CDAA is most interested in protecting its own members, while just 23% of voters believe that the CDAA will only advocate what’s in the public interest;
- Overall, 52% of voters have an unfavorable view of the CDAA, compared to just 23% who have a favorable view.
The CDAA has been a consistent force against reforms to the criminal legal system, lobbying in the statehouse and even helping to challenge popular reforms in court. In recent years the group has opposed policies such as legalizing marijuana, reducing penalties for drug and property offenses, raising the age for adult criminal prosecution from 14 to 16, and reforming the state’s exceptionally harsh “three-strikes” sentencing law. In defending this punitive, tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice, the CDAA has repeatedly invoked the rhetoric of protecting victims and the public interest.
But in January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the CDAA had misappropriated $3 million in restricted funds that had been secured through environmental protection and worker rights lawsuits, and that were supposed to fund that sort of public interest litigation. Instead, the CDAA put the money in its general fund and used it to pay other expenses, including its anti-reform lobbying efforts.
Following these revelations, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon this week resigned from the CDAA, writing in an open letter that the “CDAA continues to be a member organization solely for those willing to toe the ‘tough on crime’ line. For the rest of us, it is a place that fails to support us, our communities, or the pursuit of justice.”
Gascon’s resignation followed that of Republican Tori Salazar, the District Attorney for San Joaquin County, who left the group in January 2020. “As criminal justice reform sweeps through California and the nation, I witnessed the CDAA oppose most reform-based initiatives, which tells me the association is out of touch and unwilling to find new approaches to criminal justice,” Salazar wrote in a letter to then-CDAA president Nancy O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney.
Moreover, in September Gascon and Salazar joined San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton to form a new lobbying group, the Prosecutors Alliance of California, aimed at advocating reform policies that depart from the CDAA’s tough-on-crime positions.
The CDAA’s relevance and legislative clout has already been dwindling. Following Gascon’s announcement this week, law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick, who leads the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law, wrote on Twitter that, from 2015 to 2018, criminal justice-related bills in California actually had a greater chance to pass if prosecutors opposed them.
Prof. Hessick’s findings echo our poll results, which also show that voters view the CDAA as untrustworthy and intent on protecting the interest of prosecutors over the public.
Full Poll Results:
A recent audit of the California District Attorneys Association found that they had misallocated over $3 Million in settlement funds. These were restricted funds that came from workplace and environmental settlements, and they were supposed to be used to prosecute cases in those areas. Instead, the funds were used for lobbying to oppose criminal justice reform and protect the power and interests of prosecutors.
From February 5 to February 8, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 740 likely voters in California using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting history.