My mom always told me, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” During the summer of 2020, amidst nationwide protests against police brutality, my mom’s words echoed in my mind. As a former prosecutor, I wasn’t only concerned with police brutality. I’d seen up close how our criminal justice system had become a dumping ground for people who are homeless, dealing with substance abuse disorder, and who suffer from mental illness. It was clear that the Sacramento District Attorney’s office, where I worked for eight years, was part of the problem.
Historically, prosecutors have embraced “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and policies. This misguided approach is based on the belief that harsh penalties and long prison sentences reduce crime. Today we know this approach not only does not work, it’s actually counterproductive. Studies show us that lengthening prison sentences has little impact on crime rates. Furthermore, two-thirds of people released from prison are rearrested within three years. The enormous cost of our revolving door prison system siphons resources away from the interventions we know reduce crime.
I’ve thought long and hard about my role as a prosecutor. I am proud of my work giving a voice to crime victims and seeking justice. I strongly believe that some offenders who pose a danger to society must be isolated. But I now see that, in many cases, pursuing longer and stiffer penalties in the name of safety was based on the false promise that jails and prisons are the path to safety. I, too, was part of the problem. Something needed to change.
Like former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, current Sacramento’s District Attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, has long championed harsh sentences as a way to achieve greater safety. How did that approach work out for the people of Sacramento County? Crime has skyrocketed to higher rates than our forward-thinking neighbors. Domestic violence homicides quadrupled and overcrowded jails created dangerous and illegal conditions leading to a federal consent decree.
But it’s not just Sacramento. An analysis of statewide crime data by the LA Times revealed that, “the biggest risks for homicides came in conservative counties with iron-fist sheriffs and district attorneys, places where progressives in power are nearly as common as mermaids riding unicorns.”
I couldn’t ignore our failing criminal justice system and the stories of those denied justice. Organizing free legal clinics and community discussions, I met women like Jennifer whose daughter was murdered and Kim whose teenage son was found dead during an overnight stay at a friend’s home. No one has ever been arrested in either of these cases. I learned how many trans sex workers won’t bother to report being raped or assaulted because they fear being arrested. I saw the area along Stockton Blvd. where young black and brown girls are openly trafficked and where months earlier, two of their lifeless bodies were found.
My mother’s words were blaring in my ear; I could no longer be a part of the problem. I decided to run for Sacramento District Attorney. The attention and support my campaign received was a testament to the community’s frustration. I received the backing of the Democratic Party, labor, and major endorsements from Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and even the traditional leaning Sacramento Bee.
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Ultimately, our campaign fell short on election night, but my mother’s voice had not waned. Even in defeat we brought attention to the issues facing our community in a manner that will ensure they can no longer be ignored. We didn’t win, but we were still part of the solution my community needed to heal and become healthier, safer and more just. I left the campaign trail with renewed motivation to champion progressive prosecutors across California and beyond.
At its core, the progressive prosecutor movement is focused on strengthening community safety through interventions proven to reduce crime. From Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón to Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, forward-thinking prosecutors are reshaping our criminal justice system.
But you don’t have to run for office to be a powerful force for change. Some of the most important advocacy happens when we simply talk to our friends, neighbors, and even our own family at the dinner table. As we look into the future, it’s important we all ask ourselves: am I part of the solution?
Alana Mathews is a former prosecutor and candidate for Sacramento District Attorney. She now works with the Prosecutors Alliance of California.