Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Capital B is talking to newsmakers from across the country who want to reshape American politics or galvanize Black voices in government. Our “Voices of Change” series will update periodically with insights from the candidates, activists, lawmakers, and political insiders who you should know.
As the only Black elected chief prosecutor in California, Diana Becton took the role in 2017 with a plan to “shake up this office.”
Since then, she has attracted attention for doing things differently in the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office: She stopped prosecuting low-level drug crimes and established a drug diversion program. She launched a “conviction integrity unit” to review questionable cases, resulting in one man’s exoneration. She filed felony manslaughter charges against a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed motorist, leading to the first conviction of an on-duty officer in the county’s history.
In 2019, she partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to review patterns in the office’s charging decisions, “with an aim to ending racial and implicit biases in our justice system.”
The goal of all these reforms, she said, is to be “smart on crime” by focusing on those who are committing the most violent offenses.
“You can’t clog up the entire system with all of these misdemeanor cases,” Becton said. The current system offers few alternatives to incarceration, she noted, “especially for those who might be suffering from drug addiction and mental illnesses.”
Becton, 70, is part of the wave of progressive prosecutors who have been elected in recent years on promises to reform the criminal justice system. Many are now facing tough reelection campaigns amid growing concerns about crime rates nationwide.
Becton’s opponent in the June election is one of her own deputy district attorneys, Mary Knox, a 37-year veteran of the office. Knox blamed Becton following a smash-and-grab at a local Nordstrom’s in November, saying her reform measures have allowed criminals to go free. She objected to Becton’s drug diversion program and was against the successful prosecution of former Danville Police Officer Andrew Hall, according to the East Bay Times.
Knox also filed a gender and age discrimination case against Becton in 2019 along with four other female prosecutors who allege that Becton “promoted and assigned supervisory roles to significantly less qualified and less experienced men.”
Becton, who previously served as the president of the National Association of Women Judges and Contra Costa County Superior Court judge, spoke to Capital B about the challenges of reforming the criminal justice system and campaigning for reelection amid crime fears. The interview is edited for clarity and length.
Capital B: With growing fears about crime, what approach is your office taking to protect the community at large while providing defendants fair treatment?
Diana Becton: One of the things I always talk about is the fact that it really is not an either/or. It’s very often [prosecutors] get accused, if you’re doing progressive work, we get accused of then not protecting the community or not protecting the rights of victims. I like to say it’s an “and.”
We’ve had a lot of discussions about smash-and-grabs. In my county, we made the national news, because of the 90 people that stormed the Nordstrom store all simultaneously, going through separate entrances, creating alarm within our community about safety. But the thing about the message I send is that we are holding those accountable who are committing serious and violent crimes in our community. So, for example, with the smash-and-grabs … there’s district attorneys up and down the state, we were immediately on the phone and then on [a] Zoom call to coordinate our resources because we recognize that the people who are committing these crimes were traveling from county to county. So I immediately partnered with six counties all the way down to San Joaquin and Santa Clara County on up north, and we also partner with state and federal and local law enforcement so that we’re bringing the best intelligence and prosecution information so that we can hold those accountable for the smash-and-grab. Also, every single person that has been apprehended, we have charged and make sure they’re being held accountable. …
And we coordinate our resources with federal and local law enforcement. We concentrate on those who are using guns and violence in our community so that we can really be smart on crime, and we’re focusing our attention on those who are committing the most violent crimes.
I’ve established the cold case unsolved homicide unit, especially with the advancements in technology and DNA. We’ve been able to solve cases that lay unsolved for many, many, many years and so now we go back and work with law enforcement agencies to take a look at bringing justice to the family. I’ve established [a] human trafficking unit, so we are focusing on those who are abusing people in our community for labor or for sex.
So community safety is always the number one priority, but it doesn’t mean that I am investing less in the important work of trying to reduce our footprint with mass incarceration, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m not going to focus on issues of equity and fairness and racial disparities in our system, as well. So I say it’s always an “and.” Yes, we’re here making sure that we’re doing what we need to do for community safety, and making sure that we’re also keeping up our work with the Vera Institute, and they’re helping to take a deep dive into our data and our decision-making with an aim toward really ending racial and implicit biases in our justice system. All of those things work together for me for the definition of community safety.
You established a Conviction Integrity Unit in your office and have at least one exoneration so far this year. Explain the importance of having a unit like this, and do you think the exoneration of Jermaine Dickerson is the first of many to come?
Creating such a unit, it was following a progressive trend around the country. Investigating prior convictions, it’s important to seek justice for those who may have been wrongfully convicted, and also to investigate claims of actual innocence and cases where there may have been significant integrity issues. Those are all areas that the unit takes care of. We don’t have a lot of staff there, we only have one attorney there. A little bit slow going, but we certainly are hopeful that as we go forward, there will be more and more cases where we will be able to overturn.
How important was it for you to start a drug diversion program? What were you seeing in your community that this needed to be tackled and what success rates are you seeing?
Measuring success is a little bit of a challenge for us right now. And we’ll talk about how I’m trying to stand up my portals so that we can have readily available data to be able to answer those questions.
In terms of the drug diversion, it really stems from a broader conversation about an understanding that there’s certain things that we just simply cannot prosecute our way out of, and drug addiction is one of them. And when you try to criminalize people who happen to suffer from addiction, it really just becomes a revolving door. On top of that, it really also bogs down our courts with so many cases, misdemeanor cases, that really don’t necessarily have anything to do with the safety of our communities.
That is why it was important for me to say that people are being cited solely for the possession of small amounts of drugs, that we will divert them away from the criminal justice system, and actually refer them to health care and to treatment. And the whole idea was to reduce the strain on our courts and our law enforcement, but also to provide treatment options as a better solution for community safety.
Black residents make up less than 10% of the population in your county, but what role do you see them playing in your reelection bid?
Certainly, the Black vote and the Black community … is extremely important because a lot of the policies and procedures that I’m putting into effect are really ones that are redefining public safety for Black and brown communities. And so clearly, their vote and their support is extremely important. But in this county, I also have to have a message that resonates across color.
The thing about Contra Costa County is that people are recognizing that they do have to use facts over fear … because we go after the violent crime. If my community is saying, “Oh my god, she was not prosecuting violent crime,” that would just be a big untruth. But people are all up in arms about the low-level nonviolent stuff. And what I have to keep reminding people about is, all of the issues of quality-of-life stuff — homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction — we can’t prosecute our way out of those problems.
As a community, as a public safety issue, we have to find a different path for those kinds of cases. Go to the entire community to bring this new definition of public safety, and one that also has to have a lens of equity and fairness — and has to recognize that we need to decrease our footprint on mass incarceration and also reduce our racial and ethnic disparities — and so those are the messages that I think are so important, and they resonate across the board.