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ACLU launches ‘Hey meet your DA’ campaign to shine spotlight on district attorneys

When Dajon Ford, a former star football player at McClymonds High School, was arrested for robbing casual carpoolers at gunpoint in Oakland’s Rockridge district in 2013, the 17-year-old’s fate lay in the hands of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, whose office opted to charge him as an adult.

After he’d spent nearly four years in Santa Rita Jail awaiting trial, prosecutors offered Ford, who had no prior record, a deal that allowed him to plead no-contest in exchange for a year of informal probation. He could have faced decades in prison.

This after the Urban Peace Movement, an Oakland non-profit, spearheaded a campaign to collect more than 1,200 signatures on Ford’s behalf asking the DA to reverse course. And, the passage of Proposition 57, which removed prosecutors’ sole discretion in charging juveniles as adults and placed that authority in the hands of judges.

“You can’t judge me on one situation and have that cancel my whole life,” Ford told this news organization during a jailhouse interview in August. He was formally sentenced Friday to the year of probation and released from Santa Rita Jail.

The Alameda County district attorney could not be reached for comment. However, a spokeswoman said previously that the prosecutor made charging decisions based on the seriousness of the crime.

Criminal justice reform advocates said Ford’s case is an example of the power that district attorneys across the state have over criminal defendants’ lives. Yet many Californians know very little about the role of their local DA.

Next year, all but two of the 58 district attorneys in the state are up for reelection. In an effort to educate voters, the American Civil Liberties Union recently launched an interactive website, “Hey Meet Your DA” — part of a broader grassroots campaign to reduce mass incarceration.

“We hope that people will pay more attention to these races and let DAs know that we are paying attention for the first time,” said Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California. “But beyond that, we want district attorneys to listen to communities that have been most impacted by mass incarceration so they can work together to achieve reforms.”

A report from the ACLU and the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School accompanies the website. It looks at how district attorneys often took positions out of step with the majority of their constituents on four ballot measures passed since 2012 that reformed three strikes laws, increased youth access to parole and legalized recreational marijuana use for adults.

“Community advocates can take this kind of information and say to their (elected officials), ‘Look, this is not what we want, we want you to represent our values,’ ” said Jessica Brand, legal director for the Fair Punishment Project. “Because they are actors with so much power, it’s really important to focus on them.”

In Alameda County and many other jurisdictions, past elections for district attorney have not been competitive races. Rather, the top prosecutor often hands off the job to his handpicked successor, who then has the advantage of being an incumbent when the election is held.

“In many ways, you don’t answer to the public when you are designated, as has been the case for a long time in Alameda County,” said Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris.

Burris said the ACLU campaign would encourage people to question the standards that district attorneys use to prosecute cases, and lead to better transparency.

“The DA has a lot of power in my view that often adversely affects people’s lives when they overcharge to get plea deals on cases that shouldn’t be plea deals, and people need to know what those issues are,” Burris said. “I am well aware of the collateral damage people suffer even for minor convictions.”

The ACLU partnered with criminal justice reform advocates in 11 counties statewide, including in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara.

The Safe Return Project, an organization of formerly incarcerated people in Richmond, is working to mobilize voters before the Contra Costa district attorney’s election to replace DA Mark Peterson, who resigned in June amid corruption charges. He was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to perform community service for using more than $66,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. The Board of Supervisors is set to name an interim DA to replace him.

“It’s kind of a blessing that he resigned because it gave us a kickstart in organizing for the election,” said Tamisha Walker, founder and executive director for the Safe Return Project in Richmond. “No matter who the board elects, interim, the community still gets to weigh in, in 2018, and choose whoever is holding to our values of fair prosecution.”

In the coming months, organizations like Silicon Valley De-Bug in San Jose will be holding town hall forums and other events to introduce the public to DA candidates.

“DAs for the most part have been able to operate completely insulated from community pressure, even though they determine the fate of a lot of communities,” said Raj Jayadev, coordinator for Silicon Valley De-Bug, an ACLU partner organization in San Jose. “So the fact that communities will now start looking at DAs and what their powers are is just a game-changer.”

Tammerlin Drummond
East Bay Times

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