Your Local Guide to Criminal Justice in California Primaries
We preview a dozen of critical elections for sheriff, DA, judge, and more, that will shape criminal justice practices in California.
Bolts Staff, | June 7, 2022
For criminal justice, today is one of the year’s most critical election days. Millions of Californians are making choices that will considerably shape local practices and policies. And dozens of elections for prosecutor, sheriff, judge, and more, feature stark contrasts on sentencing practices, drug policy, the death penalty, or abortion.
California has taken major steps away from the “tough-on-crime” consensus that sent its prisons and jails ballooning over past decades, with change occurring through a combination of ballot initiatives, legislative reforms, and progressive local officials. But there’s been rising pushback against criminal justice reforms in California and across the country, and today the national spotlight shines bright on the recall effort against Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s progressive district attorney.
Bolts has reported on 10 other local California elections that feature similar debates, whether it’s a reform-minded incumbent facing law enforcement blowback, or a tough-on-crime official up against a progressive challenger.
Here’s your guide of the top races to watch on June 7.
People keep dying in California jails overseen by sheriffs who hold immense but typically unmonitored powers. Bolts delved into three of the state’s sheriff elections.
Los Angeles County: The Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is marred by an avalanche of scandals and investigations into abuses and organized violence, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva faces a crowded field of challengers on Tuesday. All have deep law enforcement backgrounds, as is required by California law, though challenger Eric Strong’s platform reflects many of the immediate demands from the activist left in Los Angeles. But local progressives are also cautious about reform talk from any candidate given the history of illusory changes, and are pressing for oversight no matter who wins.
Alameda County: Gregory Ahern’s 15-year tenure in Alameda County, home to Oakland and Berkeley, has seen a string of deaths at the jail he oversees. At least fifty-eight people have died in custody at the county’s Santa Rita lockup since 2014, making it the deadliest jail in Northern California. Ahern is now seeking a fifth term, and somehow this is the first cycle he has faced challengers; mental health care and solitary confinement behind bars are emerging as key issues given years of deaths and legal challenges tied to lax treatment at the county lockup.
San Diego County: This county hosts the deadliest large jail system in the state, and has been hit by damning reports about the conditions that are contributing to this crisis. The sheriff resigned earlier this year amid scandals, and dangerous jail conditions have become an unusually prominent issue in the race to replace him. The frontrunners talk about reducing deaths, but they are bringing vastly different commitments to the table.
And there’s more: Bolts is also keeping a close eye on sheriff elections in Contra Costa, where the sheriff has fought the prosecution of a deputy over two fatal shootings; Riverside, whose sheriff has defended investigations into pregnancy loss; and Solano, where an incumbent sheriff faces challengers but has strong support from law enforcement unions.
For more, consult our full list of sheriff candidates running across California.
Candidates running for sheriff in California can win outright on Tuesday if they gain more than 50 percent of the vote; otherwise, the top two vote-getters will move on to a November runoff.
San Francisco: Boudin’s tight election in November 2019 was a triumph for the movement to elect progressive outsiders to DA elections, but San Francisco will decide on Tuesday whether to remove him in a recall election that is heavily funded by real estate and venture capital money and could be a heavy blow to progressives. Boudin has faced accusations that his approach aggravated crime, though violent crime and homicides are up in many places run by tough-on-crime DAs.
Orange County: Backed the local Republican Party, DA Todd Spitzer faces three opponents, including the Democratic-backed Pete Hardin. Embroiled in a scandal over racist comments made public earlier this year, Spitzer has turned to demonizing neighboring Los Angeles. To Hardin, Spitzer is trying to deflect from the economic and racial injustices and rising crime that are also rocking his county.
Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties: In 2020, Boudin joined a reform alliance with two other reform-minded DAs, Contra Costa’s Diane Becton and San Joaquin’s Tori Verber Salazar, each of whom is now facing challengers backed by law enforcement organizations. The two joined hands in 2020 to form an alliance in support of criminal justice reform, breaking with the established order for California DAs. And now their reelection bids highlight the continued local battles over the future criminal justice policy, fueled in part by their decision to prosecute law enforcement officials during their past term.
Santa Clara County: Home to San Jose, this county hosts a complex three-way election. DA Jeff Rosen faces two challengers, former prosecutor Daniel Chung, whom he demoted, and public defender Sajid Khan, with whom he has longstanding personal grievances. Rosen and Khan each claim a reform mantle but clash over what exactly that means, with Khan proposing to go much further in breaking with tough-on-crime conventions, such as vowing to stop prosecuting minors as adults.
Kings County: In one of California’s reddest counties, DA Keith Fagundes sparked a furor for prosecuting two women over stillbirths, a window into a nation where abortions are already policed, even in a blue state. He faces a conservative challenger who has spoken up against those prosecutions.
And there’s more: Bolts is also tracking DA elections in Alameda, where progressives hope that a reform candidate will make it through to the runoff; Riverside, which is a national engine of death sentences; Sacramento, an open race with stark disagreements over reform; and Yolo, where the incumbent, who heads the DA association, is critical of criminal justice reforms. He faces a former public defender, who stressed at a recent forum that violent crime has increased locally. The DA replied that this was a statewide problem, a reasoning that his allies deny to his reform-minded peers.
For more, consult the full list of DA candidates running in California.
A candidate running in a regular DA election in California can win today if they cross 50 percent; otherwise, the top two vote-getters will move on to a November runoff.
Other local offices
Los Angeles County: Four progressive candidates, three of whom are public defenders, have formed an informal slate in Los Angeles County’s judicial elections. These candidates say they are running because they believe that judges should use their power to take aim at mass incarceration, rather than reinforce it, and to disrupt the prosecutor-to-judge pipeline that dominates courts in Los Angeles and across the nation. Their unconventional candidacies are the fruit of a growing movement that aims to connect the dots between judges and broader reform efforts.
Los Angeles: Abolitionist organizer Eunisses Hernandez is running for city council in Los Angeles on a platform of boosting services outside of law enforcement and limiting crackdowns against unhoused peoples. She is one of several local candidates in Los Angeles who are hoping to boolster’s the local council’s vulnerable left flank. The city is also hosting a crowded mayoral election, which is likely to go into a runoff; billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who wants to significantly boost the scope of policing.
Bolts is also monitoring California’s attorney general race. Sacramento’s tough-on-crime DA Anne Marie Schubert has sought to make the race into a referendum on the state’s criminal justice reforms, and she is running as an independent against Democratic Attorney General Roy Bonta and multiple Republicans. The top two candidates will move on to a runoff.
And there is more
All eyes may be on California on Tuesday, but voters in Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota will decide their primaries as well.
Explore dozens of elections to watch, and keep track of the results as they come in on Election Night, with our Bolts cheat cheat.