Energized by a decade of laws passed to shrink the state’s prison population, Bay Area criminal-justice reform advocates see the expected appointment of a new California attorney general as a crucial chance to gain a major ally.
But for that to happen, they say that whoever Gov. Gavin Newsom chooses to succeed Xavier Becerra — poised to join the Biden administration as Health and Human Services secretary — will have to significantly pivot the office’s focus toward reform causes.
Over a dozen names from many walks of public service, encompassing experiences in Congress, the state Legislature, and the courts, have emerged in and around Newsom’s advisory circles as potential successors. The consensus among several Bay Area criminal-justice experts is that no matter who gets the job, a major shift in the office’s priorities is necessary to make the attorney general a key player in reform.
Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center — and a former professor to Becerra — noted that the office is a general counsel to the state that oversees a massive regulatory bureaucracy, evidenced in scores of consumer-protection and environmental lawsuits.
“That’s really where the attorney general’s most important role is, and not with what the public general thinks with criminal prosecution,” he said. “The AG can be a spokesperson for criminal-justice policy issues, but that depends on political talents or persuasion powers.”
Becerra’s office has exerted influence on some crime-policy reforms, but the hallmark of his three-year tenure has been suing the Trump administration over its policies, led by immigration and environmental issues. For reform advocates like Linda Starr, co-founder of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University, that’s evidence the attorney general can have huge influence in this realm if they so choose.
“Criminal-justice reform has not achieved the level of attention and commitment it deserves. They have the bully pulpit and they should seize it, and set the right tone,” she said. “The AG can choose legislation to support and choose legislation to oppose, and can work with local justice allies, groups like us, and be part of our coalition.”
Critics contend Becerra and his predecessors underused the office in that cause. His attorneys have defended key reform policies in appellate court, including a law prohibiting teens younger than 16 from being prosecuted as adults, and supported a landmark appeal out of San Francisco that could dismantle the state’s cash-bail system.
But the office was also hands-off when many thought it should have intervened, like when it spurned a request from Solano County to investigate the Vallejo police shooting of Sean Monterrosa. Fatefully, the next attorney general will be tasked with building and running a new state unit probing fatal police shootings of unarmed people, after the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1506 last year.
“If the attorney general were to weigh in, some of these things can change overnight,” said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “It’s unpopular for a few, but it’s the right thing.”
There are also strong demographic pressures on the governor as well. Jordan says he feels strongly the next attorney general should be a person of color, a woman, or both, given the system’s injustices with those populations.
The state’s Democratic Legislative Women’s Caucus sent a letter to Newsom this month asking Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton and several current and former female legislators — Sen. Anna Caballero, former Sen. Martha Escutia, Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, and Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes — get serious consideration for the role.
Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who sources say is among those being considered by the governor, contends an experienced prosecutor can bridge the gap between reforms and necessary buy-in from the law-enforcement agencies to make them work.
“The kind of person to lead that effort is someone with deep experience prosecuting cases, who has worked with crime victims to know the harm caused,” Rosen said.
By virtue of his background, Rosen — who is lauded by Jordan and formally backed by the county’s La Raza Roundtable — is firmly positioned as a conventional candidate, but he argues reforming systems like prosecutions requires intimate familiarity with the process.
“It’s essential, since those are the issues that will be confronted,” he said. “Change comes in different packages, and the splashiest packaging doesn’t always bring the most progressive long-lasting change.”
But Sajid Khan, an alternate public defender in the South Bay, contends that a raft of decarceration-focused reform laws, and the recent DA elections of former public defender Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and Becton, a former judge, show Californians want something dramatically different.
“Traditionally, AG’s were county-level prosecutors, and district attorneys were former line-level prosecutors. But that tradition has led to injustices,” Khan said. “Public defenders, we’re in the jail, we’re in the courthouse, we’re seeing how the system operates, but more importantly we’re seeing how the system fails.”
Khan supports the selection of Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a former public defender and San Jose city councilmember, as having the experiences to handle the multiple layers of government to be an effective reform leader.
Kalra’s profile has risen in reform circles because of his authorship of the Racial Justice Act, a potentially landmark law that offers a still-to-be-defined ability for criminal defendants to challenge convictions they can prove were prejudiced by racial bias.
Another Bay Area legislator cut out of a similar mold, former San Francisco deputy city attorney and current East Bay Assemblymember Rob Bonta, has also emerged as a surging prospect. Last week San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu proactively took himself out of the candidate carousel to throw his support behind Bonta.