Fresno DA candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp speaks to local members of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Photo by Howard Watkins

Meaningful Criminal Justice Reform Starts with Our District Attorney

By Pam Whalen

Fresno DA candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp speaks to local members of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Photo by Howard Watkins
Fresno DA candidate Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp speaks to local members of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Photo by Howard Watkins

After three terms in office and two uncontested elections, Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan is being challenged by a formidable contender, Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp. While races for district attorney typically pass under the radar and draw low turnout from the voters, watchdog organizations concerned with holding these elected officials accountable say that we ignore these races at our own peril.

According to Ana Zamora at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, “California continues to waste enormous amounts of taxpayer money, needlessly locking up too many people for far too long who don’t need to be behind bars to keep our communities safe.”

Zamora continues, “District attorneys and sheriffs can play a central role in adopting smarter approaches to criminal justice, including alternatives to incarceration like community-based rehabilitation and education programs that will save money and more effectively reduce recidivism and overall crime rates.”

Bob Navarro of the Fresno Chapter of the ACLU points out the need for local voter attention to the district attorney’s race. “The district attorney occupies an immensely powerful position. They make policy decisions that go far beyond individual cases and impact the local community, county budgets and state budgets.”

The growing awareness of the critical role that the district attorney plays in the community has prompted local groups to organize a candidate forum for the race to be held on April 30 at 7 p.m. at Fresno City College’s Old Library.

The Fresno Partnership, a coalition of more than 40 labor, environmental and community groups has joined with civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), the Central California Latino Political Action Committee (CCLPAC) and the Central Valley Progressive Political Action Committee (CVPPAC) to organize the event and encourage voters to become better informed about this race.

The Fresno Partnership has already held successful candidate forums for Fresno City Council and Fresno County Board of Supervisors races. These events were attended by 300‒400 persons.

Local activists are encouraging voters in some of the communities hardest hit by harsh and aggressive “tough-on-crime” policies to get involved with this race.

Daren Miller, a local activist in a number of local groups and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, feels strongly about increasing civic participation in this race. “It is important for people who serve the public, such as the district attorney, to be accountable to that same public, which in Fresno County is about 70% people of color.”

Miller continues to say that “these residents are living in areas with crime rates above the national and state averages and household incomes among the lowest in the country. Our district attorney must be accountable to this public as well as others.”

Rhea Martin, a lead organizer with Californians for Justice agrees. “I see this as an opportunity for the young people and communities of color in Fresno to get involved in this important election and ask the candidates tough questions about issues that really impact these communities in our county.”

Historically, however, the problem we see emerge in these critical district attorney races is that they are dominated by tough-on-crime rhetoric and fail to meaningfully address the concerns of the voters. Criminal justice, after all, has historically been a politically divisive issue in California, leading many elected officials to avoid the topic or automatically take the safe route: Oppose reform efforts and support tough sentencing policies.

Over the years, these tough-on-crime policies have resulted in enormously high costs and terribly overpopulated jails and prisons. The problem is not, however, insurmountable. With innovative and meaningful reform, we can see lasting change in our criminal justice system that will stop the revolving door into our jails and prisons, reduce the cost to taxpayers and make Fresno a safer and more vibrant place to live.

This kind of meaningful and lasting reform starts with our district attorney. To learn more about the Fresno County candidates running for district attorney, attend the candidate forum on April 30, and most important, vote on June 3.

For more information on the candidates and to RSVP to the forum:

*****

Pam Whalen is a longtime labor and community activist and a member of the editorial board of the Community Alliance. Contact her at pamwhalen@comcast.net.

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  • Mike Rhodes is a writer for the Community Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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