California's dramatic pivot toward giving counties primary responsibility for punishment over a wide swath of persons convicted of felonies, a policy known as realignment, is the most important move toward dismantling mass incarceration in this state in forty years. As I have argued here before, there is both great promise and peril in this experiment. If counties end up sending most of these felons into already often over-stretched county jails for longer sentences than such jails have ever been used for, mass incarceration will only have broken up, like a bubble in a water filled souvenir snow globe, only to reappear in a panoply of fragments. However, if large urban counties where many felony convictions originate, but also where many of the skills necessary to manage crime related risks are concentrated, vigorously pursue alternatives to incarceration, combining smarter risk management with restorative justice methods, California could once again lead the nation in reinventing penality (this time in a good way).
This high risk experiment will play out in each county, and no figure is more crucial to how it comes out than the District Attorney, that is, the elected chief prosecutor who determines what charges to bring and what sanctions to seek for every criminal charge brought in California. In chapter 2 of my book Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear,I argued that prosecutors had emerged as the strongest political expression of the war on crime. While DAs have often moved up into higher office, the war on crime had given them an even more powerful momentum, and had reshaped the aspirations of higher executive officers like mayors, governors, and presidents, who often seemed to vie to be a kind of "prosecutor in chief." As the primary political beneficiaries of growing public concern about crimes, prosecutors played a crucial role as accelerators of mass incarceration; using their wide discretion to send people to prison who don't need to be there, and to send others to prison for decades longer than they need to be there. But that same discretion gives them enormous potential to steer us away from mass incarceration if they choose to, a potential magnified by realignment.
Thus the most important thing voters (especially in California) can do to reduce mass incarceration and help realignment work out in the best direction, is to elect District Attorneys that have their eyes on that prize and have the skill set to achieve it. I wish I knew more about the DA candidates on the ballot up and down the state this Tuesday, and could make recommendations. However I do know enough to make a recommendation in the San Francisco race. I had the opportunity to work with David Onek when he directed the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. I have nothing bad to say about any of the other candidates (but I wouldn't want the former police chief of San Francisco to be its DA for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with the current incumbent, but would take several longer posts to explain). David has a unique skill set for this job, combining administrative skill, a powerful commitment to finding innovative ways to reduce crime and increase a sense of justice, and tremendous insight in the research relevant to making the best possible use of the enhanced opportunities created by realignment. If you live in SF, please vote David Onek for DA. If you have friends or relatives who vote there, please send them this post and ask them to consider voting for David.
The main criticism of David is that he has never worked as a prosecutor. But elected DA's do not try cases (unless they want the glory for political reasons), they help set policies for the office and assure that they are carried out effectively. Experience can be a great benefit, but today we have a unique need for leaders who can navigate through dramatic and uncharted change. What we need now, more than ever, are prosecutor-leaders who have not bought into the war on crime/mass incarceration paradigm (which is a risk of anyone who has had too much experience), and who have the leadership skills to bring their line prosecutors into the decarceration strategy. We also need visionary leaders who can help set the agenda for other counties. David is a tremendous listener and communicator (watch his interviews with criminal justice leaders on the Berkeley Law website here) who could define the best practices for realigment throughout the state.