Throughout the United States district attorneys for various jurisdictions are appointed by the executive or elected by local voters, but even elected D.A. offices strive to maintain an apolitical, nonpartisan view of themselves and their work, and don’t typically have very exciting campaigns.
Given the D.A.’s role as prosecutor of criminals rather than legislator or arbiter of public policy, that’s probably the way it should be.
Frankly at The Independent Voter Network, most of us would like to see all elected offices including those of legislators de-politicized and freed from the worst systemic dysfunctions of the partisan mindset.
At the same we like to see voters have a choice, and for real, substantive issues with public policy from inception to implementation seriously grappled with, for conventional ways of doing things to remain when they make sense, and to be reformed thoughtfully when they don’t.
Well for only the third time in the past 24 years, San Diego voters will have a choice for District Attorney, the top prosecutor in San Diego County, and the choice is between the current appointed interim D.A., Summer Stephan, and her challenger, Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright.
It seems at first glance that hyper-partisanship may be finding its way into this election. Stephan is running as a Republican and Jones-Wright as a Democrat. And the race has attracted a lot of outside money and interest from very political forces, such as George Soros, who has given $1.5 million to the California Justice & Public Safety committee, which supports Jones-Wright.
But so far the conversation seems to revolve more around substantive issues of policy and principle, than party. The typical campaign playbook for an elected D.A. office is to talk tough on crime and win over the local police, but Jones-Wright, a public defender who has seen the justice system from that side of things is talking criminal justice reform.
Her goal, like other reform-minded D.A. candidates this year is to, as the L.A. Times says: “reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before trial.”
Stanford Law professor David Sklansky says:
“For decades, the only real question about prosecutor elections was: Are they pernicious or are they just irrelevant? For years, the races tended to focus on character issues rather than policies…. So it’s really quite a change.”
Given that it is an elected office, there’s no reason why voters should not be able to exercise discretion in voting for a candidate that enumerates a set of principles and prosecutorial priorities that will guide how they carry out their function in the criminal justice system. It’s a system that incentivizes prosecutors to do whatever necessary within the bounds of procedural due process to win as many pleas and convictions as possible.
Many think that’s the prosecutor’s job, and that the constitutional safeguards in place to protect defendants in a fair trial are the counter balance to the D.A.’s role of aggressively prosecuting the accused to keep society safe from criminals.
In San Diego’s D.A. race, Stephan is touting her record as a national advocate for the victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking:
“District Attorney Summer Stephan has devoted her life to protecting children and families and giving a voice for justice to the voiceless and most vulnerable. She is a national leader in the fight against sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Summer served as a Deputy District Attorney in San Diego County for 28 years where she combined extensive courtroom experience with over 15 years of management experience. She rose through the ranks to appointments as Chief of the DA’s North County Branch and Chief of the Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Division, a Special Victims Unit she pioneered. In 2012, she was appointed Chief Deputy District Attorney. In 2017, she was appointed District Attorney…
Summer holds leadership positions in public safety on the national state and local level. She served as Chair of the County of San Diego Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Advisory Council. Summer chairs the Women Prosecutors of the National District Attorneys Association, Human Trafficking Committee. Summer chairs the Task Force on Threats of Targeted Violence to our schools and community. Summer was selected as one of only two prosecutors in California to serve on Governor Schwarzenegger’s Task Force for High-Risk Sex Offenders and Sexually-Violent Predators.”
In contrast the most popular question on Jones-Wright’s recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) group interview was:
“Hi Ms. Jones Wright! Unfortunately we have been hearing from sex workers that the passage of SESTA/FOSTA is endangering them in various ways. As DA, will you be able to take measures to protect consensual sex workers in San Diego? I believe you have mentioned the importance of not conflating sex trafficking with consensual sex work.”
To which Jones-Wright answered:
“You are exactly right. I believe that conflating sex work and sex trafficking is dangerous and ineffective. Sex trafficking is clearly defined as involving coercion, fraud, force, or underage individuals. Sex trafficking is a serious crime and if we want to crack down on it, we must first understand what it is and what it is not. Reality says that some people voluntarily participate in sex work. This is important so that we do not cast a wide net and take time and resources away from combatting sex trafficking. With regards to SESTA/FOSTA, law enforcement was using Backpage and other sites to monitor activities online that now have been driven deeper into the shadows. We are making it harder for sex workers to do their jobs safely and are putting them in more danger. As DA, I will care about keeping communities truly safe for everyone (not just the people I see as deserving of safety), instead of what my conviction rate is. This is something that is a priority for me.”
What do you think? Is San Diego’s District Attorney election showing signs of sliding into the same partisan dysfunction as other elected offices in this country? Or is it moving in the direction of a more conscious and considered approach to criminal justice?