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Notes on the Valley: Why this district attorney race matters

There has never been an election like the one we are going to have on June 7.
Candidates for Alameda County District Attorney are (left to right) Pamela Price, Seth Steward, Terry Wiley and Jimmie Wilson.

There has never been an election like the one we are going to have on June 7th. Four candidates are running for Alameda County District Attorney, and none of them are the incumbent. This gives voters a chance to have a big voice in determining the future of criminal justice in our communities. 

While the position of Alameda County DA has technically been an elected position for decades, there’s been a long standing tradition in which the incumbent DA hands down the seat to a hand-picked successor by endorsing them.

In 2009, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors appointed Nancy E. O’Malley as District Attorney after Thomas J. Orloff’s retirement. She ran unopposed in the following two elections and then had one challenger in 2018. 

Her predecessor became the county’s top prosecutor in 1994 when he ran unopposed to fill the seat of then-retiring District Attorney Jack Meehan.

Going back even further, in 1981 Jack Meehan was appointed District Attorney by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Meehan was reelected District Attorney unopposed in 1982, 1986, and 1990.

In fact, since 1920 every time a District Attorney first took over their post they were either appointed by the Board of Supervisors or ran unopposed. 

For the first time ever O’Malley as the current DA chose not to pick a successor, leaving the race wide open.

As elected officials, DAs are responsible for seeking justice for the communities they represent. Even more importantly, they are responsible for defining what justice is. This means that they decide whether or not a person will face criminal charges and jail time after they’re arrested by a police department or the sheriff on suspicion of committing a crime.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. At any given point in time, over two million people in our country are held in detention. This is largely driven by our desire to incarcerate non-violent drug users. 

The prison incarceration rate for Alameda County is 332 per 100,000. As a county it puts us slightly higher than the incarceration rates of places that have been rife with conflict such as Russia, Nicaragua, and Honduras. 

While the U.S. is the richest country in the world, and Alameda County is one of the richest counties in America our incarceration rates are magnitudes higher than countries with similar levels of resources.  The majority first world countries have incarceration rates well below 100 per 100,000. 

The Alameda County District Attorney oversees an office with a budget of about $90 million and more than 300 lawyers, investigators, and other employees. In addition to their staff, this budget helps provide support to crime victims and their families as well as witnesses, helping an estimated 16,000 in 2019.

They have the authority to set policies like whether or not to seek prison or jail sentences for people convicted of drug offenses or theft, or to divert these people into treatment programs or other alternatives.

They also watch the watchmen and investigate fatal police shootings & police brutality cases. It is up to the District Attorney to decide whether or not to charge law enforcement officers for unjustified uses of force.

Our current methods of policing and prosecution have led us to aggressively throw people in prison regardless of the severity of their transgression. This heavy, punitive strategy has not curbed crime in heavily affected communities. 

Other countries have figured out solutions to hold people accountable for serious crimes yet have compassionate responses for those who struggle with addiction or mental health issues.

This election cycle provides a unique opportunity for voters to help shape the future of justice in our county. It’s essential that all of us in Alameda County research the current batch of candidates and vote for someone with values that align with making our communities safe and supportive.

District Attorney Candidate Websites:

Pamela Price

Seth Steward

Terry Wiley

Jimmie Wilson

Editor's Note: The "Notes of the Valley" blog is written by Monith Ilavarasan, who grew up in Pleasanton. After a career in tech, he took a sabbatical to be a community organizer. He has continued to work in tech and shares his thoughts on the people, places and events that make up and shape the Tri-Valley.