This California progressive prosecutor beat back the tough-on-crime backlash. How?

Photo of Eric Ting
Diana Becton is sworn in as the new district attorney for Contra Costa County by county Supervisor Federal Glover in Martinez, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. 

Diana Becton is sworn in as the new district attorney for Contra Costa County by county Supervisor Federal Glover in Martinez, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. 

MediaNews Group/East Bay Times v/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

After San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled earlier this month, a huge number of national publications wrote stories suggesting the election was proof of a broader backlash against criminal justice reforms sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Telling such a tidy story requires ignoring how many criminal justice reformers actually won their races across the Bay Area on June 7, often against steeper odds than Boudin's opponents faced.

Take Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton, a reform-minded incumbent who easily beat back a well-funded challenger lobbing attacks similar to those deployed against Boudin. Becton's challenger, Mary Knox, called her soft on crime and claimed that her office had created a culture of lawlessness that prompted a viral shoplifting incident at a Walnut Creek Nordstrom similar to the videos coming out San Francisco.

Both Becton and Boudin are members of the progressive Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group that also includes Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, who is facing a recall attempt of his own. Like Boudin, Becton has de-emphasized incarceration in favor of diversion programs for those facing mental health and substance abuse issues.

Yet Becton defeated Knox by double digits (56.4% to 43.6%) on a night Boudin lost by double digits. How?

It's not because Contra Costa County is further left than San Francisco County; President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump 71.6% to 26.3% in Contra Costa, while winning 85.3% to 12.7% in San Francisco. The opposition to Becton was well-funded, with six-figure contributions coming from the Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriff's Association. (In 2021, Becton secured a conviction against a former sheriff's deputy who shot and killed an unarmed motorist during a low-speed chase.)

In an interview with SFGATE, Becton attributed her win to balanced messaging of holding people accountable for crime while still pursuing reform. Boudin, whose policy record is very similar to Becton's, attempted this messaging in the months leading up the recall, but was unsuccessful. His supporters blame the well-financed recall campaign drowning out Boudin's counterarguments, but Boudin's past statements that were deemed dismissive of crime concerns did him no favors. Becton had few, if any, of these highly publicized remarks.

SFGATE talked to Becton about her campaign, property crime concerns, the future of progressive prosecutors and more. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

SFGATE: Let’s start with the broader context of June 7, which is that you won on the same night Chesa Boudin was recalled in San Francisco. National outlets rushed to call it the death of criminal justice reform in California. Why did you win when he didn't?

Becton: First of all, it's important to acknowledge that every community has different dynamics and needs. Here in Contra Costa, when I was elected four years ago, I promised to do three things differently. One: hold everyone — including law enforcement — accountable for their actions. Two: increase transparency in the DA's Office, and three: innovate beyond incarceration. I was very clear on my goals and delivered on all three.

Everybody wants to feel safe in their communities and homes, and I made sure that message came through loud and clear. We're focused on serious and violent crimes, making sure there are resources there and also maintaining a robust unit that supports victims.

I made sure people understood the need to reimagine the criminal justice system to work for everyone and not just a few while maintaining public safety. We showed that the last 30 years of approaches haven’t worked, and that the one-size-fits-all decimated communities and relegated Black and brown people to second-class citizenship.

We worked hard in that space to say there's a better way. We increased efforts into prevention of crime and alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses where we got people into mental health or substance abuse treatment instead of incarcerating them.

We showed that it's possible to have the complete package and it resonated well.

SFGATE: You talk about striking a balance between messaging public safety and reform, which Boudin did try to do. Did he do that too late? What could he have done differently?

Becton: It's hard for me to speak to whether his message resonated, it’s not a space I feel comfortable evaluating. There were a lot of different factors. He walked into the door when the pandemic first started, and that exacerbated certain conditions. There are dynamics in San Francisco that we just don’t have in many other counties.

I can't say which messages of his resonated or didn’t, I can only opine on the feedback I received in my own county.

SFGATE: When you were campaigning, what were people most concerned about? Which reforms of yours were the most popular?

Becton: Especially in past year, if we've heard anything loud and clear, it's that people made it clear there is a desire for public safety. We’ve had highly publicized smash-and-grabs and people, no matter what community they were in, were alarmed by those.

Everyone wants to feel safe. I think that’s the messaging we leaned into, that we intend to make public safety a high priority. We talked about our efforts with task forces to focus on violent crime.

The other thing that really resonated was increasing accountability and transparency. On officer-involved shootings, there wasn't much transparency before I came in. I made a pledge in 2018 to make sure we prepared thorough reports about investigations and their legal conclusions that we then published on our website. We talked a lot about accountability for public officials and members of law enforcement who abused their power. That resonated with citizens.

SFGATE: So about those Nordstrom smash-and-grabs, do you think progressives need to take property crime more seriously? There’s often this urge to say it’s not as important as other issues.

Becton: There was never an attempt to create a false narrative on the work we did there. Our response to those incidents was swift. We made sure that everyone apprehended was hit with felony crimes including organized retail theft. That's one of the few places we have 100% filing rate. Everyone who is apprehended for that crime gets prosecuted.

I was on the phone with at least six prosecutors in the region, knowing that if someone did that crime in Contra Costa today, they could be in Santa Clara tomorrow. We decided that we’d pool resources and intelligence to make sure we all take a very organized approach to understanding retail theft and prosecuting it.

Everyone I’m aware of who was apprehended was prosecuted. We wanted to send a clear message on what's been a nationwide topic.

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton during a press conference about the Golden State Killer in Santa Ana, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. 

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton during a press conference about the Golden State Killer in Santa Ana, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. 

MediaNews Group/Orange County Re/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

SFGATE: Circling back to accountability for law enforcement, how much of the vitriol directed at you was a result of you charging the sheriff’s deputy do you think? Does this campaign look different if that never happens, as far as the law enforcement mobilization against you goes?

Becton: It’s a hard question to answer, but it certainly was a huge part of the anger generated by law enforcement. Even after a jury found him guilty and the judge gave lengthy reasoning for why prison was appropriate, the sheriff blasted me for charging the deputy.

It certainly didn't go over well and that was talked about on the campaign trail, but my message of accountability won out.

SFGATE: Do you still have a good relationship with law enforcement agencies in Contra Costa County?

Becton: I have to. We work hand-in-hand every day. It’s how we bring accountability, and working with police chiefs is how we bring safety to the community. They may not like everything I do, but we continue to work together.

On law enforcement accountability, I will continue to be transparent, thorough and fair in these types of cases. I also do not accept contributions from law enforcement unions. It creates a conflict of interest when you're investigating those cases and in a position to prosecute, but you have those same unions supporting the defense.

I support legislation that would, at the very least, require a prosecutor to recuse themselves from those cases if they're getting law enforcement union money.

SFGATE: What advice do you have for progressive prosecutors currently in power, progressive challengers to incumbent DAs or for people more broadly who are afraid that criminal justice reform efforts are in danger?

Becton: Make sure you have multifaceted approach to ensuring you're holding people accountable. Make sure your office is transparent and that you're thinking outside the box for new and innovative approaches that move us beyond a reliance on incarceration.

Squarely center your approach on crime prevention and put in place alternatives to incarceration, especially for mental illness and drug abuse. We can have accountability for certain crimes without incarceration, and we have to message that these alternatives work.

Progressives around the country should recognize that change doesn’t come quickly, and this is not always an easy space to be in. We have work to do still, and I'll continue to work with the community to make Contra Costa County safe and fair for everyone, not just a select few.