In the increasingly contentious race to become the next district attorney of Sacramento County, there are no perfect candidates.
The incumbent, Anne Marie Schubert, is a talented prosecutor, a cold case expert and a consistently influential voice in California politics. But she also has been slow to grasp the importance of criminal justice reform to an increasing swath of the public, and has been oddly tone deaf to the concerns of the diverse community she serves.
Noah Phillips, the feisty deputy prosecutor who is challenging her, certainly says all the things progressives want to hear. But he comes across as opportunistic and seems to lack the political chops to actually carry out the sweeping policy changes he supports. There are also unresolved allegations of prosecutorial misconduct over an alleged sweetheart deal with a murder defendant.
We endorsed Schubert in 2014 as a moderate who could transcend the reflexively tough-on-crime agenda of her predecessor, longtime DA Jan Scully. We still believe that and so we endorse her again for the June 5 primary — with a couple of caveats.
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First, Schubert must do more to demonstrate a commitment to the transparency and accountability voters want from her office. If not, she will continue to watch protesters attack her reputation through the 10-foot cyclone fence around her office.
And second, she must stop paying mostly lip service to the diversion and rehabilitation programs that she once promised to find the resources to make work. Her office's Youth Academy and Shadow Day programs are engaging, and drug and mental health courts are promising, but none can compare to the kind of restorative justice programs giving low-level offenders alternatives to jail in, say, Yolo County.
It's not that Schubert is completely out of touch. She has had many successes as district attorney and as a prosecutor, particularly with cold cases and cases so gruesome few want to know the details.
This includes the prosecution of Luis Bracamontes, who was given the death penalty in April after being sentenced for killing Sacramento County sheriff's Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff's Detective Michael Davis Jr. in October 2014. Although Bracamontes practically convicted himself, laughing and cursing his way through trial, Schubert expertly navigated some tricky immigration politics after President Donald Trump put him in an ad for a border wall.
More recently, her role in catching Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected East Area Rapist, also should be lauded. Although it was Detective Paul Holes of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office who came up with the idea of matching old DNA on a genealogy website, it was Schubert who sparked new interest in the cold case and created a task force of various law enforcement agencies to work on it.
But this good work has been tarnished by unforced errors after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Stephon Clark in March. Schubert's office will eventually decide whether to charge the two police officers involved, and that has fed into a larger national narrative about the inherent conflict of interest that DAs have in such investigations.
Phillips, who has been a prosecutor in Sacramento for 20 years, has capitalized on the public outrage, in part with outside money from billionaire philanthropist George Soros. He's used it to talk about the need to dial back the aggressive prosecution of low-level drug crimes and people younger than 25.
He supports bail reform and legislation that would chip away at the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which too often works as a shield for bad cops. He's promised to implement restorative justice programs and to be more willing to charge officers who shoot suspects under questionable circumstances.
Clearly, public opinion is shifting on criminal justice. What's unclear is whether Phillips is the right messenger and whether his fellow prosecutors support him.
Schubert, on the other hand, has been endorsed by the Sacramento County District Attorneys Association and the Sacramento County Probation Association, as well as most local Democrats, including Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Councilman Allen Warren rescinded his endorsement last week.
Voters are better off pushing Schubert to change the culture of the DA's office. Call us optimists, but we believe she will come around.