Oakland District Attorney Pamela Price is currently facing a recall effort, as the latest reformist top prosecutor to have a media target placed on her head.
Price was unexpectedly elected as Alameda County’s DA in 2022 on a criminal justice reform platform. This included pledges not to seek the death penalty, to respect “sanctuary city” policies, and to investigate “excessive sentencing practices with a special focus on racially-biased prosecutions.”
Despite Price having been in office just a matter of months, she’s being relentlessly attacked over her perceived leniency and its alleged outcomes.
A Change.org recall petition, launched in February—just the second month of her tenure—brands Price “soft on crime” and has almost 25,000 signatures at publication time. And in July, some residents formed a committee to organize and fund the recall bid.
Many variables—overwhelmingly longer-term—impact crime rates. Price, however, has become an easy person to blame.
City figures suggest overall crime in Oakland is up 26 percent on last year, and violent crime up 15 percent, although recorded homicides fell by 13 percent. But many variables—overwhelmingly longer-term societal factors such as inequality and lack of opportunity—impact crime rates. And violence has been an issue in Oakland for as long as anyone can remember.
Price, however, has become an easy person to blame.
Loud criticisms have attended cases like that of Delonzo Logwood, a young man initially accused of three murders at 18 years old, though two of the charges were dropped this year. Amid reported evidentiary issues with the prosecution’s case, Price tried to offer Logwood a plea that would have seen him sentenced to “only” 15 years in prison. When the judge rejected the plea deal, she tried to have him removed from the case.
But perhaps the biggest flashpoint is the accusation that she is going soft on David Misch—a man awaiting trial for three murders, including that of a 9-year-old girl—by not seeking life without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Still, no one acted like former Minnesota US Attorney Andrew Luger, for example, was a coddler of child killers when he let a murderer take a plea for 20 years in prison and no actual murder conviction (albeit there were significant differences in the cases).
Price’s predecessor also saw a surge in reported crime. But O’Malley did not get significant heat for this.
Another comparison is more telling. Because Price’s predecessor as Alameda County DA, Nancy O’Malley, also saw a surge in reported crime. During the first three years of her long tenure, homicides rose and nonfatal shootings soared by almost 50 percent—from around 380 when she took office in 2009, to 561 reported incidents in 2012.
But O’Malley did not get significant heat for this.
That’s because she largely behaved the way a DA is “supposed” to behave. She was a hard-charging prosecutor whose biggest supporters were members of law enforcement. (When Oakland Ceasefire, a violence reduction strategy launched by city leaders and involving community partnerships, dramatically reduced gun violence in the years that followed, the Giffords Law Center put out a 107-page report on this “case study of hope.” It does not mention O’Malley’s name once.)
O’Malley ran unopposed in both 2010 and 2014, before defeating Price quite comfortably in the 2018 election with substantial funding from law enforcement unions. Only her decision to retire after 2022 ended her time in office.
The Price recall effort should be viewed in the context of a national backlash in recent years against the so-called progressive prosecutor movement. High-profile targets have included Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Aramis Ayala in Orlando, to name a few. And Los Angeles DA George Gascón has faced a constant barrage of legal and political attacks since taking office in 2020, including no fewer than three recall attempts.
“Tough-on-crime” prosecutors, in California and elsewhere, have not only avoided similar attacks over rising crime rates in their jurisdictions, but have gotten an easier ride amid all kinds of personal scandals.
Yet, when even progressive candidates for district attorney slip up, California media bring out the pitchforks.
Anne Irwin of the organization Smart Justice put what’s been going in California on very well in a recent interview with the Intercept. “What’s remarkable,” Irwin said, “is that there has been almost no coverage of how an elected prosecutor runs their office until progressive prosecutors were elected. Then all of a sudden, there is intense scrutiny, much of it drummed up by the folks who are backing a recall, to make a case that the progressive prosecutor is a bad manager.”
Control over law enforcement policy is ultimately about power. Conservative law enforcement elements have amassed a great deal.
While some of her counterparts have managed to survive, the chances are that Price will share the fate of Chesa Boudin, who was ousted as San Francisco DA last year. Price’s 2022 election victory was narrow. And at least in the United States, optics about public safety carry more political weight than safety itself. The concept of safety, meanwhile, is rarely extended to the harms of incarceration that Price seeks to reduce.
Even if Price somehow manages to remain in office, powerful city residents will continue to hound her because they oppose her policies on principle, regardless of what specific case they might be able to make against her. This could render her incapable of changing very much about how her office does business.
Control over law enforcement policy is ultimately about power. Conservative law enforcement elements have amassed a great deal, and are practiced in deploying it at legal, media and populist levels. Progressives have simply not yet built enough of it to protect their candidates after they win elections.