Three candidates vying to become Alameda County's next district attorney joined community group Livermore Indivisible in a virtual forum last month to discuss issues facing the criminal justice system, including gun violence, transparency and racial disparity.
The nearly two-hour discussion provided prospective voters with an opportunity to hear from civil rights attorney Pamela Price, chief assistant district attorney Terry Wiley and deputy district attorney Jimmie Wilson about their reasons for running for district attorney and their respective plans if elected next year.
Whoever is elected to fill the DA seat will succeed 12-year incumbent Nancy O'Malley, who announced in May that she would not seek re-election. Her current term is set to expire in 2023.
Livermore Indivisible member Helen Machuga moderated the early candidates forum on Nov. 14, asking a series of questions that had been compiled beforehand followed by a Q&A period with viewers facilitated by Marla Kirby. The virtual event was co-sponsored by Livermore Vine, Pleasanton Weekly and The Independent.
One of the first questions the candidates tackled was identifying key challenges the Alameda County DA faces and how they would address them. Wiley cited eradicating gun violence, increasing transparency, and shutting down disparities within the criminal justice system in his response.
Wilson pointed to violence as the biggest challenge, adding that the focus of the DA should be on proactively trying to prevent crime rather than just reacting to crime. "One of the reasons why I am in this race is because I feel that we are letting down our communities, especially our Black, brown and poor communities," Wilson said.
Price said that a lack of trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole is a significant challenge that exists, in part because of racial disparities that negatively impact Black and brown communities. "I believe that public safety requires public trust," she said.
She also highlighted the need for transparency, which Wiley had also previously mentioned. Price argued the DA's office has been "operating in the darkness without any accountability to the people whom it is committed to serve," which is an issue that contributes to the lack of public trust.
"Most people have no idea how the DA's office functions or what they actually do or how decisions are made," she said.
When asked about how they would decide which charges to prosecute and which considerations are most important to them, both Price and Wilson addressed overcharging as a problem within the criminal justice system.
To illustrate his point, Wilson provided an example of a case that was charged as a burglary that he believed should have been charged as trespassing because the person broke into a residence where no one was living at the time. He said that overcharging is often used as a strategy to have leverage to get someone to plead guilty, which he deems "unacceptable."
"You win when you do justice the right way," Wilson said.
Price agreed that overcharging by district attorneys is "baked into our system" as it has been enduring throughout the duration of her decades-long career.
She said that, if elected, the cases she would prioritize would be those that are rooted in public safety. "We know that we have an epidemic of gun violence and so I would prioritize those cases. And I want cases brought to me that are not based on racial profiling, that are not based on gender profiling, that are not based on income status," she said.
Wiley spoke to correcting the trend of overincarceration of Black and brown people that has carried over from the 1990s and early 2000s. "About 65% of all criminal offenses are what we would call low-level criminal offenses," he said, adding that he encourages considering alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs for some of these crimes.
Police-involved deaths -- an issue that sparked racial justice uprisings last year following the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police -- was also a topic that the candidates discussed.
All three candidates acknowledged that as agents of public safety, police and other law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard and that there should be accountability for misconduct.
"When it comes to police officers, you have to understand that they are the only profession in society that can engage in justifiable homicide -- and that gives them a lot of power out there on the street, and so they have to be held to a higher standard than others on the street," Wiley said.
When sharing their views on the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole, both Wiley and Wilson said they oppose the death penalty. Wiley said his reason for opposing it is that there is "too much disparity in the way that it's applied."
Wilson shared similar sentiments. "I believe that the death penalty is applied to Black, brown and poor people at higher rates than anyone in society," he said.
Price did not explicitly say whether she opposes the death penalty or not in her response, but she reiterated the issue of disparities in the way that justice is administered when applying the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole.
All three candidates said that the sentence of life without the possibility of parole is dependent on individual circumstances.
Price, Wiley and Wilson are the only candidates so far who have declared their intent to run for district attorney, but other hopefuls may join the race as the nomination period in Alameda County for the June 7 primary election doesn't open until Feb. 14.
A complete recording of the forum is available here.