Selecting the most powerful person in the Alameda County criminal justice system, it is important we ask ourselves what makes a “good” DA?
- When to pursue criminal charges
- When to dismiss a case
- Which charges to pursue
- To seek the death penalty or not
- To offer (or pressure) a plea bargain or not
- To summon a grand jury or not
- When to bring in an independent prosecutor?
These are all questions that could change a person’s life trajectory, and all are left to the discretion of one person. The core reality is NO ONE HAS MORE POWER IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM THAN PROSECUTORS.
When a question was posed to the community of 'What makes a good DA?', a vast majority of community members responded with three overwhelming criteria: stems from the community, possesses basic core values, and and operating from evidence-based practices.
A good DA comes from the community, is in tune with its needs and has a true stake in it. Prosecutors have a direct impact on the rate of mass incarceration growth. Every person incarcerated for a minor offense is another person torn away from the community. A DA who has a vested interest in seeking alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice, is a good DA.
A district attorney who expresses interest in the reduction of over-policing in public schools, because kids from their community are in those public schools, will have a greater impact on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.
A DA must realize that, in the age of mass incarceration, formerly-incarcerated people are members and leaders of our communities and should be in positions of power in the city and in the criminal justice system. Re-entry is an almost impossible effort without community support, and slip-ups are almost guaranteed. However, locking up a person who has already served years behind bars, because of driving without a license or for selling a small amount of weed, without providing real jobs and housing opportunities for ex-prisoners, is not what it means to give a second chance.
Lastly, a DA who understands they are also a part of the police community, and as such cannot be in charge of holding police accountable, but calls in an independent prosecutor to investigate cases of police brutality, is a good DA.
Prosecutors have a significant impact on the utilization of archaic non-evidence based policies like pre-trial detention. These pre-trial detentions, along with bail, has actually shown to increase crime and created bias against poor people in the criminal justice system. So, although the decision to impose cash bail is left to the judge's discretion, the DA is a part of the process all the way: after arrest, a suspect is taken to a police station to be interviewed by a representative of the Bail Unit. In the interview, the interviewer sets the bail by placing the suspect into one of four risk categories and one of 10 categories based on the seriousness of the charges. The riskier the suspect and the more serious the charge, the higher the bail. Before appearing in front of a judge, the DA must approve of the charge. A prosecutor from the DA’s office will be in the room during the bail hearing and can push for higher bail and pre-trial detention or seek an alternative.
The DA can be a strong influence on criminal justice policy. A good DA will follow evidence-based practices and fight against discriminatory practices that have shown to cause more harm than good.
>>Now let us not pretend there are not those whom deserve and need to be locked up because that is not what we are advocating. Crime is a real problem in our communities and we want and need a DA who will forthrightly and justly address those willingly and wontonly committing crimes - some more heinous than others. However, in so addressing, the DA must ensure no factors other than legal factors (i.e. evidence-based factors) are taken into account when determining plea bargains and sentencing recommendations.
A District Attorney who will use restorative justice, diversion programs, mental health alternatives, and community-based programs without bias or impunity.
Lastly, a good DA will possess the core values we, as a community, have determined are necessary to establish the quality of our work environment and shape the culture of our organization. They also direct how we conduct ourselves at work and guide our actions as public servants and co-workers. Serving as a code of conduct, our core values guide behaviors throughout all ranks of the organization and drive cultural change, help address unacceptable behavior in a non-threatening way and reinforce desired behaviors. Our DA must have for herself/himself, and adopt for the DA's office, the highest standards of ethical behavior and professionalism and proudly commit to the following core values in the performance of all duties: Integrity, Respect, Quality, Loyalty, Teamwork, Partnership, Innovation, Fairness, Service, and Responsiveness.
We deserve a district attorney brave enough and strong enough to lead Alameda County to a new path. We deserve a good DA.