With Oakland DA Win, Reformers Rebuild Strength in the Bay Area
Pamela Price, a civil rights attorney, won the DA race in California’s Alameda County after a campaign that promised to combat racial disparities and harsh sentencing.
Piper French | November 21, 2022
Just months after its setback in a San Francisco recall election, the reform prosecutor movement has captured the district attorney’s office across the bay.
Civil rights attorney Pamela Price has won the DA race in Alameda County, home to Oakland, Berkeley, and about twice as many residents as San Francisco. Local media called her race over the weekend after an updated ballot count showed her with a 53 to 47 percent lead over Terry Wiley, a longtime prosecutor in the office who was outgoing DA Nancy O’Malley’s chosen successor.
Price has spent the bulk of her career in civil rights law, spearheading litigation against California’s prison system. She has even fought the office she is about to lead, as an advocate for battered women. She told Bolts that she ran because of “an unacceptable, intolerable level of racial injustice that just called me to action.”
Price, who will be Alameda County’s first Black DA, deployed an ambitious platform that includes reducing the number of people locked up in the county’s deadly Santa Rita Jail, no longer charging minors as adults, and ending the practice of using people’s prior convictions, or “strikes,” to ramp up their sentences. Running in the context of Oakland’s high homicide rate, she also says she would champion community strategies of gun violence reduction as a more effective response than aggressive prosecutions.
“I think voters were offered very distinct visions of what will help prevent crime from happening in the first place, and when harm does happen, what are the appropriate interventions,” said Yoel Haile, who leads the ACLU of Northern California’s criminal justice program. “What this election shows is that people in Alameda County are tired of that tried-and-failed mass incarceration approach of the incumbent, and of the incumbent’s endorsed candidate.”
Price is one of several prosecutor candidates who won on such a message this month, including in Minneapolis, Des Moines, and San Marcos, Texas—results that will give reform DAs new figureheads going forward. And she will join others, like Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, a former civil rights attorney who endorsed her campaign, in coming to the role as an outsider.
After negative experiences with the criminal legal system as a child, when she was arrested for organizing student demonstrations, a college encounter with the attorneys who defended the surviving prisoners of the Attica uprising was the thing that first inspired her to eventually become a lawyer. Later on, as a survivor of domestic violence who called the police for help, she was arrested and prosecuted by the Alameda County DA. Price’s experiences of the way the system criminalizes survivors of intimate partner violence led her to make the case that criminal justice reform can better combat gender-based violence than approaches focused on maximizing criminal punishment, Bolts and The Nation reported last month.
“As someone who has been a survivor of domestic violence and has been an advocate for women all along the whole spectrum, from sexual assault, to sexual harassment to child molestation, all of that, I understand that there are ways that this system has to respond to victims,” she said. “I have to be able to use the tools and the resources that we have in the system to actually serve the people of the county without criminalizing folks.”
Too often, Price said, “Victims are used as tools. We don’t have the orientation or the idea that we are here to help them resolve a situation or to improve their situation.” She has emphasized the utility of restorative justice in resolving interpersonal conflict and said she will not compel victims to testify or prosecute women who act in self-defense against their abusers, both common practice for DAs.
For an incoming prosecutor, Price is atypically open about the tensions inherent in how she sees the role. “The challenge for me is that I’m saying I want to reduce and eliminate mass incarceration, but I’m going to be working in an office [where] that’s the whole purpose,” she said.
Some progressive or abolitionist critics have faulted reform prosecutors for expanding the scope of these offices rather than shrinking their power. Price acknowledged that she is wary of the way DA offices justify expanding their budgets. “People profit from our pain, and there are government institutions who don’t want to solve the problem because then they lose their funding,” she said. “So I’m trying to make sure we are not going to be profiting and creating something perpetuating the system. Our goal is to go in the opposite direction.”
For local organizations that work on racial justice initiatives and criminal legal reform, this is a moment of urgency as much as it is of possibility: and they are relishing the chance to influence policy at the DA’s office. Sandy Valenciano, Campaign and Organizing Director at the Urban Peace Movement, anticipated a new reality “where our policy recommendations are actually being considered and implemented, and we are looked to, not just as a group to check off your box that you met with them.”
The Urban Peace Movement is the leader of the DA Accountability Table, a coalition of local criminal legal reform organizations. Valenciano told Bolts that the coalition is planning to present Price with a 100-day agenda. They stress decarceral demands like reducing the number of people sentenced to prison or jail by 25 percent and expanding diversion. This is of acute concern in the county given the current state of Alameda’s Santa Rita Jail, which has seen dozens of deaths in recent years and recently settled a federal class action lawsuit concerning deeply inadequate mental health care provision. “It’s really concerning that incarceration has been the solution to address mental health within our county,” Valenciano said.
In the June primary, Alameda voters ousted their longtime sheriff Gregory Ahern, who oversaw the jail, replacing him with challenger Yesenia Sanchez, the department’s division commander. Sanchez was in charge of Santa Rita in recent years, leaving many advocates leery of her commitment to real change, though she also strongly criticized Ahern’s record during the campaign.
“This tells us that there is real energy in Alameda County for a new direction,” Valenciano said of Sanchez and Price’s back-to-back wins.
Price got far more support this year than in 2018, when she lost the DA race in the primary by fifteen percentage points against O’Malley, the incumbent. O’Malley, who broadly opposed criminal justice reforms proposed by California progressives during her tenure, went on to serve as the president of the state’s DA association.
Price has already endorsed a number of the coalition’s proposed methods of reducing incarceration rates, including ending the use of sentencing enhancements and taking full advantage of recent resentencing laws passed by the state that allow DAs to petition courts to shorten the sentences of people who have spent decades in prison.
Under Price, Alameda will be one of the biggest DA offices in the country led by a reformer—putting her under the same bright spotlight that has greeted some of her peers.
Haile stressed that a new prosecutor would need to be prepared for other officials or staff prosecutors in their county to fight or “sabotage” their proposed reforms, and he anticipated that Price would encounter some of the same challenges that other reform DAs have faced in California. Los Angeles’s George Gascón has faced major resistance over his changes within his office; Contra Costa’s Diana Becton survived a competitive re-election race in June after facing attacks heavy by police groups; and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin was recalled by voters in June after a police work stoppage and after critics of his reforms blamed him for crime in the city.
“This is a massive, massive job that has very many stakeholders and you’re shepherding multiple moving pieces,” Haile said.
Haile hopes that Price’s unconventional background will allow her to shake things up. “She brings an outsider’s perspective, which is very much needed when you’re trying to reform an office that has entrenched practices of racism, and doing things the old way and not being willing to change,” he said.
Price told Bolts that the key to a successful tenure would be remaining in close touch with the voters who elected her. “I’ve said to people consistently, don’t elect me and take me to the front door of the courthouse and say, ‘Okay, Pamela, you got it, go on in there, girl, do your thing,’” she said. “I can’t do like that. I’ve got to have input from this community.”