DA Diana Becton, a Rare Prosecutor, Wants Youth Justice Reimagined

DA Diana Becton, a Rare Prosecutor, Wants Youth Justice Reimagined
Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton is among a small group of district attorneys working to dial back decades of tough-on-crime approaches. Photo by Ashleigh Reddy.

In 2017, three months after she became the first woman and the first African American to lead the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office, Diana Becton worked to abolish juvenile justice fees that fall most heavily on low-income families of color. Since then, she has publicly released reports on officer-involved fatalities and established “Clean Slate Day” for former offenders to clear their criminal records. Her Reimagine Youth Justice Task Force is seeking alternatives to juvenile hall, a bold aim in one of the more moderate Democratic counties in the otherwise liberal San Francisco Bay Area.

Late last year, Becton, 70, sat down at her county office with The Imprint for a three-hour conversation about her career and vision for reforming the criminal justice system. With surprising candor and emotion, the DA also described how she arrived to a hostile office, managed opposition to the changes she sought, and what drives her life’s work.

“We are training attorneys not on numbers, not on trying to win at all costs,” Becton said. “We’re training them to do the right thing in every situation, and to individualize that case.”

DAs pushing for justice reforms

Becton is among a small group of increasingly visible prosecutors pushing for progressive change in a country with the dubious distinction as the world leader in mass incarceration. She considers her juvenile reforms — including a restorative justice diversion program — among her highest accomplishments in office.

Like a handful of other DAs nationwide working to dial back decades of tough-on-crime approaches, she has faced obstacles within her own ranks. Now there are new pressures. While the worldwide protest movement against racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s murder lent some public support for reforms, an uptick in violent crime during the pandemic has prompted blowback.

After a steady decline, the last two years have seen an increase in homicides, aggravated assaults and gun crimes across the country, according to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice. Between 2019 and 2020, the murder rate rose by 29% nationwide, marking the largest recorded jump in a one-year period since the FBI began releasing annual figures in the 1960s.

Researchers caution against drawing conclusions from short-term figures, relying on police department data and taking the numbers out of a larger context. And it’s too soon to be certain why some violent crime has increased, experts say. So far, criminologists point to psychological and financial stresses of the pandemic, increased gun sales and an increasingly troubled relationship between the public and police.

Becton has tried to stay firm on her department’s goals. And in her county, according to a January analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, crime does not appear to have followed the statewide trend. Unlike other large counties in the state, violent and property crimes were down in 2020 in Contra Costa County.

In an attempt to curb racial bias, Becton has partnered with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice to evaluate her office’s decision-making. She’s moved away from charging people for low-level, non-violent offenses; established the first Human Trafficking Unit to combat exploitation of sex or labor, and the first standalone Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate wrongful claims. She has also processed a backlog of untested sexual assault kits and and dismissed thousands of old marijuana convictions, she recounted.

And when it comes to a new approach to youth crimes in Contra Costa County, “we do not file low-level offenses, period,” said Andrea Tavenier, deputy district attorney and supervisor of the juvenile division.

Contra Costa
Former Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson. Photo via Contra Costa County Sheriff.

But amid these reforms, Becton has faced resistance from some in her office, which has a history in stark contrast to the present. In 2014, two years after Trayvon Martin’s killing and one year after the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement, her predecessor Mark Peterson was accused by two county public defenders of racially biased charging practices. In his scathing response, the former Contra Costa County DA repeated “all lives matter” five times.

Last May, in an ongoing legal challenge to Becton’s authority first filed in 2020, five white female prosecutors — Mary Knox, Alison Chandler, Mary Blumberg, Rachel Piersig and Jill Henderson — filed a federal lawsuit against Contra Costa County and its DA’s office. They allege that since Becton became DA in 2017, “hard-fought gains which had been made by female prosecutors for representation in management have been obliterated.”

Knox, one of the women suing Becton, is also her challenger in this year’s election. She did not return calls to The Imprint, but her campaign pledges include protecting victims’ rights, enforcing the law and holding offenders accountable.

But in a recent podcast interview with a pair of east county campaign supporters, Knox described her opposition to new state laws and court rulings that provide greater leniency for juvenile offenders, including her concerns that California now offers a chance to teens sentenced to life without parole.

Responding to questions about morale and changes under Becton, she said “the citizens of Contra Costa County are just fed up with the lack of accountability and the lack of prosecution.” Now, with a more diverse office that has enacted policies that roll back punitive practices, Knox said, the office feels less unified. “The DAs office used to be really a family, and we had BBQs and baseball games,” she said on the “WTF California” podcast.

Becton denies the allegations in the lawsuit that she passed over the women for promotions because of their gender. She described sitting at her management table as a privilege, not a right, and — as an elected official — something that she has the power over.

Statistics on her roughly 100-attorney staff shared with The Imprint show that in 2017, 43% were women. Today they comprise 55%, including three of Becton’s five top deputy DAs. She hired the first woman, and the first person of color in the office’s history to serve as chief of staff. The office was 82% white when she took over. It is now 77% white.

When it comes to her management team, Becton said she’s seeking diversity of thought, race, ethnicity and gender; professionals who have experience and the respect of peers — but also the respect of people in the communities they serve. That’s too limited a group if she’s confined to the mostly white pool of candidates who came up the office ranks, she added. She also no longer wants to measure a successful prosecutor by conviction rates.

Becton is now seeking re-election to a second full term.

“It’s important that people understand that this is a new day, I’m taking the office in a new direction,” she said. “And if you are a person who is trying to fight against the vision that I’m trying to create for this community, in terms of what community safety looks like, then no, you’re not the person that should be serving on my management team. Because you’re responsible for carrying out the new policies and direction that I’m putting in place.”

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton at her office. Photo by Ashleigh Reddy.

Becton also countered detractors who claim there’s a connection between rising crime and justice reforms. In a country where 1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 ends up in state prison and the incarcerated population has exploded 500% in the last 40 years, she sees an urgent need for change.

“We can’t afford to go back to the ‘tough on crime’ policies of the last 40 to 50 years. They did not make us safer,” Becton said. “They made us the most incarcerated country in the world. They created huge disparities in terms of race and equity, not to mention the generational trauma that those policies cause that we seldom talk about, but what I think is such an important conversation.”

Becton’s childhood: ‘I never met a lawyer’

As the first woman and the first African American to lead the office since it was established in 1850, Becton is an unexpected gatekeeper. The power she wields is rare and the need to create change is not just political, it’s personal. Her lived experience as a Black woman, a mother and a product of the civil rights movement informs how she shows up in her role.

“I was born and raised in a community where I never met a lawyer in my entire life until I was somewhere in adulthood,” she said of her East Oakland childhood.

Her mother was a self-employed beautician and her father was an airplane mechanic. She came of age in the 1950s and ’60s, moved by the Black community’s fight for basic human rights and equality. She witnessed the civil rights movement unfold.

In 1960, she experienced perhaps her most formative memory: watching on television as 6-year-old Ruby Bridges of New Orleans, Louisiana, flanked by white U.S. Marshals, marched past a threatening mob to class and made history, becoming the first child to integrate an all-white public elementary school in the South. Death threats and insults were hurled at her, but she persisted, Becton recalls thinking.

In 1960, Ruby Bridges was the first child to integrate an all-white public elementary school in the South. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“She was this little tiny girl, but she had this sense of courage about her. That image lives in me,” Becton said.

Then, in 1963, a young Becton watched as police in Birmingham, Alabama used high-powered water hoses and dogs to attack Black people fighting for equal rights. In 1968, she stood on the steps at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland during a Black Panther rally.

“All of those experiences are a significant part that make up who I am today,” Becton said.

Becton received a degree from the Golden Gate University School of Law in 1986, and a master’s degree in theological studies at the Pacific School of Religion in 2015.

Prior to becoming DA, she served for 22 years as a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge, including an elected term as presiding judge, overseeing a $45 million budget. She was president of the National Association of Women Judges and last year was considered a top candidate for state Attorney General, endorsed by the California Legislative Black Caucus.

Becton was appointed interim DA in September 2017, when her predecessor was found to have broken the law. Peterson resigned after pleading no contest to 13 felonies for allegedly lying on his campaign disclosure forms and using more than $66,000 in campaign contributions for personal use, according to the state’s fair Political Practices Commission.

In the 2018 election, Becton ran on a platform that promised to bring integrity, fairness and a new approach to criminal justice.

She has followed through on an early pledge to release a public accounting for all officer-involved fatal incidents if charges aren’t filed.

In April 2021, for the first time in the county’s history, she charged a law enforcement officer for an on-duty killing. Becton’s office filed felony charges against Andrew Hall, a white Danville police officer and sheriff’s deputy, for the on-duty killing of Laudemer Arboleda. The 33-year-old Filipino man with mental illness was driving 6 mph after a failed traffic stop when Hall fired at him with 10 bullets.

Hall went back to work, and later fatally shot a homeless man who was holding a knife, a case still under investigation.

Becton’s rare decision to prosecute a cop in Contra Costa County, particularly given the time it took, raised additional controversy inside and outside of her office. Two DAs resigned from the team that investigates officer-involved shootings in protest.

Reaching her decision was no small feat. Becton told The Imprint that before she could file charges that would hold up in court, she needed to restructure her office to have a team, rather than an individual, investigate police shootings, changing the way it had been done in the past. She also said she had to have the case reinvestigated.

In October, a jury convicted Hall of assault with a firearm, deadlocking on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. He now faces up to 17 years in prison.

Reformers under threat

Critics of criminal justice reforms nationwide have argued that progressive prosecutors and more lenient policies are to blame for the rising crime of late. Following a spate of shootings in New York in recent months, the State Association of Chiefs of Police rallied in Albany, proposing amendments to roll back justice reforms.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Photo via the DA’s office.

Across the bay, Becton’s counterpart in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, faces a recall vote in June. The DA’s progressive policies on bail reform and creating an innocence unit prompted attacks amid a rash of violence against Asian Americans, car break-ins and property damage and theft at department stores. Forty attorneys have resigned from Boudin’s office since he arrived in 2020, National Public Radio reported late last year, one third of his office.

Former beat cop George Gascón became DA in Los Angeles County in December of 2020, announcing new policies just days into taking office. He sought to prohibit prosecution of minors in adult court, halt truancy charges and bar attorneys from using prior juvenile cases as a “strike” later in life. Along with other new sentencing guidelines for adults, Gascón’s reforms prompted immediate pushback from law enforcement officers, elected officials and his own prosecutors, who quickly filed several lawsuits to stop the new rules from taking effect. A petition to recall Gascón is now circulating. (Recently, under pressure from critics, Gascón has created policy exceptions “in the most extraordinary of cases,” rolling back earlier pledges that children would not be prosecuted in adult court and his office would not seek life without parole sentences.)

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. Photo via the DA’s office.

Becton, Boudin, Gascón and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar have formed the Prosecutors Alliance of California, which has also become the subject of some scorn. In a December op-ed in the Fresno Bee, retired Madera County Superior Court Judge David Minier, a former district attorney, called the alliance “a pretentious title for a ‘progressive’ group of four.” Minier said they are “rogue district attorneys, or ‘un-D.A.s,’ who coddle the offender and ignore the victim.”

One expert on the challenges faced by progressive prosecutors nationwide said it’s not uncommon for a reform agenda to face such pushback.

“Change and growth doesn’t happen without disrupting the status quo,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the national nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution. “There is only one elected prosecutor in an office and it is their responsibility — and theirs alone — to set policy and ensure that those policies are implemented.

Krinsky added that “not everyone will embrace new thinking and some will undoubtedly cling to the past,” but it’s important to note the national support for a new approach as well. “Unfortunately,” Krisnky said, “it’s often the voices of the opposition that are the loudest.”

Becton never expected the journey would be easy.

When she arrived five years ago with talks about jail alternatives and reducing mass incarceration, she said, “Everybody was like, ‘How are we going to get her out of here?’” What’s more, Becton added: “Some of the people that were so opposed to the changes that I’m trying to make are still here.”

Noting “remnants of the old approach that linger” in the Contra Costa County DA’s office, Cassidy Higgins, vice president of community impact at the nonprofit Fresh Lifeline for Youth, said Becton “has not had the easiest road” since her election.

But she described her as a prosecutor with “visionary ideas.” “She is persistent and does not appear to let these bumps prevent her from pursuing the pathway that achieves public safety for everyone,” Higgins said, “which has to address the root causes of crime and the needs that underlie the behaviors.”

Youth justice work

Becton has particularly impressed professionals working to turn around the youth crime trajectory. Even the local public defender had good things to say about her counterpart on the other side of the courtroom.

“We have seen significantly fewer offenses filed in juvenile court in Contra Costa over the last few years. This reduction corresponds with a nationwide decrease in juvenile filings, and also reflects the impact of local charging practices,” the county’s Public Defender Ellen McDonnell said in an email to The Imprint. “Our local District Attorney’s office is now filing fewer misdemeanor charges against youth and we are pleased to see the system pivot towards alternative approaches in certain cases.”

McDonnell said she appreciates that the DA’s office has invested in diversion and in restorative justice options for youth, and hopes to see the approach “significantly” expanded — citing evidence that even in more serious cases, it “helps to prevent future criminal legal system involvement for youth.”

Research on adolescent brain development has better defined the connection between criminal acts and the inability to control impulses and consider consequences. Meanwhile, incarceration has not proven to be a crime deterrent, but too often achieved the opposite — accelerating criminality and recidivism among youthful offenders.

Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton, a Rare Prosecutor, Wants Youth Justice Reimagined
A statue of Lady Justice in DA Diana Becton’s office. Photo by Ashleigh Reddy.

Meanwhile, youth crime and detention has been on a steady decline for decades. Like facilities up and down the state, Contra Costa County’s hulking 290-bed John A. Davis Juvenile Hall — a maximum-security detention facility for juvenile offenders — sits mostly empty. On a recent day it housed 35 youth.

Children of color are far more likely than their peers to get arrested at school, be charged with crimes for adolescent misconduct and be prosecuted as adults. Even with fewer youth being locked up, racial disparities are as stark as ever. Becton’s county reveals the nationwide trend: Only 9% of Contra Costa County’s child population is Black, but Black youth make up 55% of those in detention. In contrast, white children are 35% of the population, but just 9% of those incarcerated.

The annual cost to detain each youth in Contra Costa County, a financial burden that falls on taxpayers, is nearly $550,000, according to local officials.

In a 2020 press release, Becton announced she would give the Board of Supervisors the Reimagine Youth Justice task force recommendations “on the most effective ways to invest in our justice-involved youth through restorative, community-based solutions, with an initial focus on developing an effective process for closing Juvenile Hall.” Although initially, she sought to have a plan for local officials to consider at the start of 2021. She now says she needs another year to complete it.

Members of the task force include system-involved young people, parents, county lawyers, victim advocates and specialists in mental health and education, and Becton wants their decisions to be driven by more than cost-savings. “We need to be thinking about what’s best for our kids and exploring what’s available,” she said. Many of the kids in detention don’t need to be locked up, Becton added, but the county doesn’t yet have alternatives. “You got this big facility, you know that’s not what you need, but you still need a secure facility for youth who are not yet safe to be in our communities.”

Meanwhile, her office is using a $1 million state corrections grant for a three-year pilot program to explore alternative routes for youth found breaking the law. The DA’s office partnered with RYSE Youth Center of Richmond and the Oakland nonprofit Impact Justice to launch R.E.S.T.O.R., the county’s first juvenile diversion program.

Youth 12 to 17 who’ve been arrested but not charged with a crime can be referred to the program by the DA’s office. Cases must meet certain criteria: The offense must include an identifiable victim who did not sustain a serious physical injury. Those who’ve committed serious offenses such as murder, rape, robbery and carjacking with a weapon are not accepted.

Deputy DA Tavenier said she’s referred young people who’ve been arrested for grand theft auto, attempted robbery, “fairly serious” battery and assault and burglaries. Examples of those diverted include a teenager who assaulted his mom during an argument, and a group of teenagers who attacked a mall security guard they said had racially profiled them.

All affected parties must voluntarily attend, and be willing to discuss what happened in a restorative circle.

The “responsible youth” meets multiple times over several months with the “harmed person,” caregivers and support people. They write a letter of accountability, and listen as all parties describe what happened and the impact it had on them. Collaboratively, they reach an agreement about the path forward, and specialists with the program ensure the plan is completed.

The R.E.S.T.O.R. program cites dramatic savings in public funds when incarceration is avoided, lowered recidivism rates and high satisfaction among crime survivors. It began accepting participants in March 2020 from parts of the county where racial disproportionality is highest — the cities of Richmond, Pittsburgh and Antioch. So far, the restorative justice circles have been held virtually due to the pandemic, but that has made participation easier, cutting down on travel times and connecting people located in far reaches of this sprawling county.

Forty-five young people are now participating.

Circle facilitators dig deep into the young person’s state of being by learning about their physical and mental health, their school experience, home life and more. “When you get down to the root of the problem it’s rarely self-centered, these kids aren’t trying to get material things,” said Stephanie Medley, director of education and justice at RYSE. “We’ve found that a lot of our families need food, and learn that the young person was trying to get money because they feel like they don’t have something.”

The key is getting young people before they formally enter the criminal justice system, offering them services, and amplifying victims’ voices. Most times, the person harmed just wants the young person to understand the impact of their actions, and that they caused pain, Medley said.

The plan for the “responsible person” — who are not labeled convict or criminal or offender — ranges, depending on the victim’s requests. The teen might be asked to volunteer with a community group, perform yard work or produce an improved school report card. Medley said she anticipates almost doubling the program by June, achieving close to 100 youth participants.

Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton, a Rare Prosecutor, Wants Youth Justice Reimagined
Tamisha Torres-Walker. Photo by Samaruddin Kassim Stewart.

Antioch City Council Member Tamisha Torres-Walker, who runs the Richmond-based Safe Return Project which aims to “secure the freedom and liberation of formerly incarcerated individuals,” applauded the program. But she said its limitations give her pause. Torres-Walker, who was previously incarcerated, said the diversion program “has fast-tracked decarceration of young people in the county.”

But she said she’s concerned about “the system” choosing who gets the chance to avoid being criminally charged. Youth who advocates and community members see as good candidates might be excluded from the benefits of restorative justice, Torres-Walker said. “It’s the institution that is making the recommendations,” she said. “We’ve got to be careful about that.”

Deputy DA Tavenier said she is working to ensure that the kids who go through the program are successful.

“First, because they will have earned a sealing of their juvenile record and a fresh start, and second, because as the number of successes grow, we will have demonstrated that it works at least as well, if not better, than the justice system for those youth who complete it,” she said. “In my view, a strong foundation will allow for a much larger house.” Deputy DA Tavenier said she’s is aiming for sustainable reform, which has to be intentional, reasoned, and a measured change.

“We often talk about this really as the social justice and civil rights movement of this century, of our lifetime,” Becton told The Imprint, her voice shaking as she described the breadth of her work. “For those of us who get to sit in this seat, we have a charge and it’s a huge responsibility to talk about what community safety looks like: People, no matter where you are or who you talk to, people want to live in a safe community. They want to have housing, they want to have adequate schools. They want to have food and clean water and parks and open space.”

Progress throughout her five-year term has been hard won. As she proceeds, she hopes to cement the kind of change that cannot be easily undone by a successor with a different approach.

“I probably can’t do every single thing on day one, but I can keep moving, and get us to where hopefully, by the time I walk out of this door, the changes that I am implementing become the norm and not the exception,” Becton said. “I want people to say, this is what we do now.”

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report.

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