The Movement to Decarcerate Los Angeles Targets Judicial Elections
A four-candidate progressive slate is running to shift county courts toward a less punitive outlook.
Piper French, | April 6, 2022
The case that made public defender Anna Slotky Reitano decide she wanted to become a judge wasn’t necessarily that different from those that came before it. Her client had been pulled over for changing lanes without using a turn signal, and Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies decided to search his car. They found his nephew’s t-ball bat, which they called a ‘club.’ Now, he was being charged with possession of a weapon, a violation of his parole.
It was 2020, the height of the pandemic, amid broad-based efforts to get as many people out of jails and prisons as possible. The prosecutor wasn’t even in the courtroom—she was calling in on Zoom due to COVID-19 safety protocols. But none of that seemed to matter to the judge on the case, who ordered Slotky Reitano’s client to jail after he showed up late to his court date.
Slotky Reitano eventually got the case dismissed and secured her client’s release, but something about the experience—the trivial nature of the charge, the way the judge seemed to want to punish him—stuck with her. What if someone else had been on the bench that day? “I think criminal courts, in particular, are very dehumanizing,” she told Bolts. “And they don’t have to be.”
Now, Slotky Reitano is running to become a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. While each judicial seat is fought over in a separate election, she has formed an informal campaign ticket with three other progressive candidates—Holly Hancock and Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes, who are also public defenders, and Carolyn “Jiyoung” Park, a plaintiff’s attorney with background in civil rights and labor law. Each member of the slate faces a crowded field in their own race, with between two and five opponents. If no candidate gets above 50 percent in the June 7 primary, the top two vote-getters will move to a November general election.
The four candidates on this progressive slate all say they are running because they believe that judges should use their power to take aim at mass incarceration, rather than reinforce it. They also are hoping to disrupt the prosecutor-to-judge pipeline that dominates courts in Los Angeles and across the nation.
“We need judges who are going to do something different than send everyone to prison,” Lashley-Haynes told Bolts.“We need judges that recognize and appreciate addiction programs, mental health programs, rehabilitation programs—we need judges that are going to implement restorative justice.”
These unconventional candidacies are the fruit of a growing movement in Los Angeles that aims to connect the dots between judges and broader efforts to reform the criminal legal system, spearheaded by a coalition of local progressive organizations called Transforming the Judiciary. “Our work is to demystify the law for folks, to bring more community voices into the courts, so that we can leverage power,” said Titilayọ Rasaki, who works on policy at La Defensa, an organization dedicated to ending pretrial incarceration that is part of the coalition alongside other organizations like Court Watch LA and Ground Game LA, and the public defender’s union. In 2021, La Defensa launched a site called “Rate My Judge” that invites Los Angeles residents to share their experiences with local judges.
“We need to understand that the judiciary is really the heart of the matter—the heart of mass incarceration,” Rasaki said.
Rasakialso said that they ran an in-depth interview process gauging candidates’ interest in alternatives to incarceration and work in the community before endorsing the four members of the progressive slate, which calls itself “The Defenders of Justice.” Brittani Nichols, an organizer with Ground Game LA, told Bolts that the coalition is hosting a series of campaign events for these candidates, and that it may help them canvass as well.
Similar bids to “flip the bench” and elevate progressive judges are taking root in other parts of the country. In recent years, slates of public defenders and other outsider candidates have run—often successfully—on decarceral platforms in Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh, among other places.
But efforts to organize around these offices are also running up against the stark fact that judicial elections are some of the most opaque and sparsely covered races in American politics. “It’s nearly impossible to hold those judges to account when no one understands what they do or who they are,” Nichols said. Sitting judges in Los Angeles County often run unopposed, a reality that Hancock, who first ran, unsuccessfully, in 2018, called “appalling.”
It is also often difficult to differentiate between candidates. For one thing, there’s just not that much information available to voters. Slotky Reitano recalled, laughing, how a former therapist called her up and asked her advice on who to vote for in the last judicial election, assuming—incorrectly—that she might have some special insight into the merit of the various candidates. “You couldn’t even Google them!” Slotky Reitano said.
Many candidates, including those on the progressive slate, opt to invoke unobjectionable values like “fairness” and “dignity” on the campaign trail, and the California Committee for Judicial Ethics Opinions forbids judicial hopefuls from campaigning on specific promises about how they would rule. But Hancock, Lashley-Haynes, Park, and Slotky Reitano also say they share a concrete set of guiding principles that have been shaped by their professional experience representing people targeted by law enforcement. Lashley-Haynes spent four years defending minors with severe intellectual disabilities, for instance, while Hancock heads a division dedicated to expunging unhoused people’s criminal records so that they can access housing.
In individual interviews with Bolts, all four expressed similar philosophies about the criminal legal system, including a belief that Los Angeles County spends too much money incarcerating too many people, and a commitment to using alternatives to incarceration whenever possible if elected. “Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the nation,” said Park. “We still have crime—because we aren’t addressing the root causes of crime.” The three public defenders say that mental illness, addiction, violence, and poverty often underlie the crimes that their clients commit. “I have had many, many cases where my defendants now were victims a few years ago, and I can’t tell you the number of cases [where] my defendants were victims as children,” Lashley-Haynes said.
All four candidates on the slate stressed that they would implement these principles by making use of pre-existing laws and programs, something they say many judges are not currently doing. “There’s a mental health diversion law on the books,” Lashley-Haynes said, “but right now in LA County, we have judges that are refusing to follow that. We have judges that are refusing to see SUD, substance use disorder, as a legitimate mental illness, even though it’s in the DSM-5.”
Over Hancock’s twelve years working as a public defender, she has found that judges she worked with were often initially resistant to implementing sentencing reforms that voters have passed over the past decade. “They fought everything,” she told Bolts. She also noted that judges often seem to accede to the desires of the prosecutor on the case: “There was just a pretty constant deference to the prosecution.”
In Hancock’s view, these tendencies have a lot to do with the fact that most judges start out as prosecutors, a professional affiliation that can align with tougher-on-crime views. One doesn’t have to look far for examples of prosecutorial involvement in anti-reform political lobbying: in Los Angeles County, the union that represents deputy district attorneys has long fought criminal justice reforms. The union recently held a vote on whether its members wanted to recall DA George Gascón, a progressive who has dramatically shaken up criminal justice policy and clashed with other public officials since he came into office in 2020. Over 97 percent of those who voted said yes.
Many prosecutors are running for judge again this year. Across the four elections that feature the progressive slate candidates, there are eight Los Angeles deputy DAs who are also running.
Bolts reached out to these eight candidates to ask about their views on the current reforms in Los Angeles, and whether they also believe the county resorts to too much incarceration. Two of them responded through a spokesperson with a general statement. “I believe we can seek justice and still believe in public safety,” said Sharon Ransom, who is running against Slotky Reitano in a crowded race for superior court seat #60. “Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.” Ryan Dibble, one of three candidates in judicial race #67, which also includes Lashley-Haynes, spoke of supporting alternatives for incarceration “on a case-by-case basis,” mostly for low-level charges. “My goal is to be as balanced as possible in my approach,” he told Bolts.
There are more than 150 judicial elections on the Los Angeles County ballot in June; a handful of other public defenders are running for judgeships, though they are not part of this four-candidate progressive slate. Public defender Patrick Hare joined them at a campaign event last month.
A forthcoming study of the federal bench lends support to the notion that electing or appointing judges with a public defense background may lead to less incarceration. Political scientists Maya Sen and Allison P. Harris found that judges who have worked as public defenders are less likely to sentence defendants to prison, and more likely to hand out shorter sentences when they do.
Judge Allison Williams, a former public defender who was recently appointed to the Sacramento Superior Court by California Governor Gavin Newsom, said she believes that public defenders’ “extensive interaction with the community and the public has given us a different perspective that I think really can enhance our system of jurisprudence.”
Slotky Reitano agrees. Being a public defender, she said, is sort of like being a trial attorney and a social worker at the same time. “We know exactly what’s going on with most clients,” she told Bolts. “We know all about the programs that are available and the alternatives.”
Still, there has long been a stigma around public defenders seeking judgeships. “I think historically, our society said that public defenders weren’t smart enough—public defenders didn’t have the ability to be fair and impartial—public defenders had too much of a bleeding heart to become judges,” Williams said.
President Biden has changed the tide at the federal level by appointing public defenders to the bench at a record rate, culminating with his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year. That momentum has yet to carry over to state courts, though, where governors still rarely appoint judges with such backgrounds. California has not had a former public defender on its state supreme court in decades.
Los Angeles organizers are hoping to forge another way. “A person who has spent their career defending the most marginalized in our communities, they know they have to deal with a wider array of tools. They’re trying to leverage all the community resources that they have in their disposal,” said Rasaki. “That kind of perspective wearing a robe is transformative.”
Editor’s note: During an interview with Park, the author learned that Park has helped file a class action suit on behalf of Black Lives Matter protestors who were arrested by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in 2020. The author was arrested by the LASD for protesting during that time period, and then talked about the events to lawyers volunteering with the National Lawyers Guild, which is an organization that among other things provides legal assistance to protesters, but is not actively involved in the litigation.