CONCORD — The public got its first good look at four of the five finalists to be the next Contra Costa District Attorney, in a Saturday forum that focused mostly on criminal justice reform and reducing incarceration.
Participating were Santa Clara supervising deputy district attorney Paul Vanier, Contra Costa senior deputy district attorney Paul Graves, Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Diana Becton, and Contra Costa assistant deputy district attorney Tom Kensok — four of five finalists selected last month by county supervisors who reviewed 12 applicants — as well as Stanislaus County deputy district attorney Brad Nix. All 12 applicants were invited, but Nix was the only non-finalist to attend.
Saturday’s forum was co-hosted by the ACLU of Northern California; Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment; Contra Costa AFL-CIO Central Labor Council; Contra Costa County Racial Justice Coalition; Courage Campaign; Democratic Party of Contra Costa County; East County NAACP; Healthy Richmond; Safe Return Project; and Smart Justice California. The event was in some ways a preview of Tuesday evening, when all five finalists will attend a moderated discussion in front of the board of supervisors, who are expected to pick the next DA in September.
In front of a crowd of about 150, the prospective DAs fielded questions on topics like truancy, mental health policy, reforms to the county’s bail schedule, prosecuting police who break the law, the death penalty, labor issues, and racial disparities in the justice system. More often than not, the prospects sought common ground with the crowd, but there was one obvious exception: All five were asked point-blank to condemn the death penalty, and none did–though they did pledge to reduce the already-low number of death penalty cases that go through the county.
The forum did not focus much on Mark Peterson, the former DA who resigned in disgrace in June, the same day he was convicted of felony perjury.
Graves referenced his own experiences frequently; on a question about hate crime prosecutions, he said he’d recently attended a slam poetry event that gave him a new perspective on how hard it is to be a muslim woman in America. On a question about the need for alternatives to jail, he said he’d helped turn around the lives of sexual assault or human trafficking victims who were headed down a destructive path.
Kensok spoke of his ongoing work in the office on anti-violence programs like Operation: Cease Fire in Richmond, and his 20 years on the Napa school board. On a question about jail diversion programs, he remarked that the others had pledged to “do what I’m already doing,” and said he was applying for DA to put more focus on proactive crime reduction.
Becton suggested the implementing the practice of “blinding” prosecutors to information about a defendant’s race when making filing decisions, and received loud applause when she said police needed more training in de-escalation. She acknowledged around 70 percent of county jail inmates are awaiting trial and said bail reform was needed.
Vanier spoke mostly about specific policies he’d implement, suggesting at one point that diversion programs could be funded with asset forfeiture money if there wasn’t money in the budget for them, and pledged to find “alternative sentencing options” beyond jail and prison. He appeared to take a swipe at Peterson, who once blasted the chief public defender for publicly holding a “black lives matter” sign, saying, “We have to have a leader who acknowledges that racial disparities exist.”
Nix portrayed himself as an outsider, saying that Contra Costa’s justice system was in dire need of an overhaul. He didn’t parse words when asked about police misconduct, saying he’d found instances when officers illegally altered reports. He suggested behavioral courts as a means of getting the mentally ill out of the criminal court system.
Absent from the forum was Superior Court Judge Danielle Douglas, who will appear at Tuesday’s forum. She felt that answering a mandatory questionnaire on specific topics like the death penalty would violate ethical guidelines in place for judges, and may preclude her from handling certain cases.
“If we’re looking for a candidate with integrity, I’m not going to compromise mine,” Douglas said in a phone interview Saturday.
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