Erika D. Smith

George Soros wants to fix America's criminal justice system. Sacramento's DA race is a good place to start

Progressive activist Shaun King speaks in support of Sacramento DA candidate Noah Phillips last month in Oak Park. King's Real Justice PAC has donated more than $40,000 to Phillips, so far, alongside another $400,000 or so from billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros.
Progressive activist Shaun King speaks in support of Sacramento DA candidate Noah Phillips last month in Oak Park. King's Real Justice PAC has donated more than $40,000 to Phillips, so far, alongside another $400,000 or so from billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the ad.

“What is the out-of-state billionaire funding Noah Phillips’ campaign not telling us?” intones a woman who sounds like she should be narrating a life insurance commercial, while hedge fund manager George Soros flashes a creepy, out-of-context smile at the camera.

It was only a matter of time before the secretive “boogeyman,” as right-wing conspiracy theorists like to call Soros, got outed in the increasingly nasty race for Sacramento County District Attorney. Incumbent Anne Marie Schubert, who was elected in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote, is struggling to dispatch Noah Phillips, a persistent deputy prosecutor who is running on a platform of progressive criminal justice reform.

Part of the reason for this is definitely the influx of outside money.

So far, Soros has funneled about $400,000 to Phillips through his California Justice & Public Safety PAC; the similarly aligned Real Justice PAC, supported by activist Shaun King, has doled out another $40,000 and change. Meanwhile, this past week, Sen. Kamala Harris, who received $5,400 from Soros for her 2016 campaign, endorsed Phillips for the June 5 primary.

A longtime advocate of eliminating racial disparities in sentencing, reforming the cash bail system and sending more drug offenders to diversion programs instead of jail, Soros has been spending heavily this year to flip district attorney races for progressive candidates all over California and in several other states.

During the last election cycle, Soros dumped more than $3 million on DA candidates in six states, flipping seats in Louisiana and Mississippi. And back in 2014, his Open Society Foundation gave the American Civil Liberties Union a $50 million grant to elect progressive prosecutors in big cities with large jail populations.

“We’re just recognizing how powerful district attorneys are in shaping criminal justice policies, both at the local level, but also at the statehouse,” Taylor Pendergrass, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, told McClatchy DC. “The lobbying power of prosecutors is really a substantial force almost everywhere we want to see change made in the criminal justice system.”

But if you think a meddling billionaire is the only — or even the biggest — reason Schubert is getting beaten up on the campaign trail, then you are sorely mistaken.

What's happening in Sacramento is a test of California's appetite for more criminal justice reform.

It’s one thing to get a progressive DA elected in, say, left-leaning Alameda County, where 57 percent of voters are registered Democrats. It’s quite another — even for the supposedly all-powerful Soros — to do it in purplish Sacramento County, where only 43 percent of voters are card-carrying, partisan lefties, most of them in the city of Sacramento.

If Phillips wins, conservatives in the unincorporated county will almost certainly blame it on outside money. But I would argue that it's more about growing public disgust with the tough-on-crime policies of the past, whether it's the high cost of locking people up or the money that goes toward punishing people instead of rehabilitating them.

The United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country in the world, at a rate of 860 people behind bars for every 100,000 adults, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And that's an improvement! A decade ago, the rate was more like 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults.

In recent years, California voters have approved a long list of ballot initiatives that have rolled back everything from the "three strikes" law to a ban on using cannabis — and, in many cases, district attorneys were lobbying on the wrong side of history.

The same is true now.

A growing number of Americans are troubled by the police shootings of unarmed black men and of mentally ill people of all races and ethnicities. That's why there is at least some support for legislation that would modify use-of-force laws in California, making it easier for district attorneys to charge cops who shoot first and ask questions later, and that would bring more transparency to investigations of officer-involved shootings.

I'm not sure if Schubert understands this, but she should. Especially after Stephon Clark, the unarmed black man who was gunned down by Sacramento police in March.

The incumbent DA has rightfully been taken to task for her response, which, too often, has been patronizing and tone deaf. Putting up a cyclone fence around her office wasn't wise. Neither was canceling her appearance in several candidate forums with Phillips to avoid angry protesters, a choice that, among other things, has been a disservice to voters in an election year.

Studies have found that, nationwide, 85 percent of prosecutors who run for re-election do so unopposed.

If Soros changes that with his billions, that's good. If he accelerates the pace of progressive criminal justice reform, even better.

The next test is on June 5. I hope you show up, Sacramento.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith