I was sent to juvenile hall for the first time when I was around 14 years old and ended up being incarcerated for a total of 27 years. Starting in 2015 and since my release in 2018, I have documented the experiences of people in California’s prisons and life after incarceration in the podcast Ear Hustle. Many people close to me are in prison, and I, like all Californians, care about public safety. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have a strong opinion about Governor Gavin Newsom’s pick for California’s next attorney general.
I urge Governor Newsom to appoint California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. He is the strongest candidate to lead the state’s Department of Justice.
Justice Liu is the right person to be attorney general because he is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians. When Justice Liu is required to apply an unjust law, he has the moral courage to address it frankly, as when he recently criticized the expense and injustice of California’s capital punishment system and called on voters and lawmakers to find a better path forward.
I met Justice Liu in 2017 in the media center at San Quentin where I was incarcerated. He was visiting the prison with his staff. He takes them to San Quentin every year to meet with prison staff and incarcerated people because he believes decisionmakers should put themselves in close proximity to people impacted by their decisions.
I was deeply moved that a busy judge took seriously the obligation to understand the impact of his decisions, and modeled that attitude for his clerks and staff. And I was reminded of this recently when he invited me and John “Yahya” Johnson, another formerly incarcerated person, to speak to California Supreme Court attorneys and staff. He did not invite us as a gesture or performance; he really wanted to hear from us.
This does not mean I have agreed with every decision Justice Liu has made on the bench. He has voted to affirm death penalty and Three Strikes sentences, which I find inherently unjust. It was because of the Three Strikes Law that I received a disproportionate 31-years-to-life term for attempted second degree robbery, and I was released after serving 21 years only when Governor Brown commuted my sentence. So I expect I will not agree with every decision Justice Liu might make as an attorney general.
But Justice Liu has been the California Supreme Court’s leading voice on racial justice and criminal justice reform. He called out abusive policing in Black communities last year in a case about Darren Burley, a Black man in Los Angeles who was suffocated to death during an arrest long before George Floyd. And Liu spoke out in defense of a 13-year-old Black girl last month who was charged with resisting police. He has written opinions that curb excessive sentencing and facilitate parole. He has denounced the erosion of Miranda rights, particularly those of children, inspiring lawmakers to enact stronger protections for juveniles in law enforcement custody. And he has criticized the school-to-prison pipeline and racial discrimination in jury selection—opinions that again prompted the legislature to act.
When he ran for office in 2018, Governor Newsom promised to lead on criminal justice reform. Appointing Justice Liu as attorney general would fulfill that promise, and the governor would be rewarded by an electorate that has repeatedly shown its appetite for addressing the many unjust and unsustainable features of our current system.
More than most people, I know the importance of having a good attorney. All of us would be fortunate to have Justice Liu represent us as our state’s top lawyer.
Earlonne Woods is the co-creator and co-host of the award-winning podcast Ear Hustle, which has been downloaded nearly 50 million times.