A Public Defender Is Shaking Up the Race for San Diego D.A.
Genevieve Jones-Wright wanted to be a prosecutor but ended up becoming a public defender. Now she's running for D.A.
San Diego voters will go the polls June 5 to elect a new district attorney, and they will have quite a choice.
The current interim D.A., Summer Stephan, was appointed by the county board of supervisors; she's the hand-picked successor of former D.A. Bonnie Dumanis. Running against her is Genevieve Jones-Wright, a public defender who proudly touts her outsider status and is backed by liberal funder George Soros.
Stephan is running on a platform touting her experience combating sex trafficking. She has said, among other things, that there's virtually no such thing as voluntary sex work. She also characterized Jones-Wright's opposition to FOSTA, a deeply flawed piece of anti-trafficking legislation that recently became law, as a radical position far to the left of the Democratic Party. (Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris—a former California Attorney General who co-sponsored SESTA, the Senate version of the law—endorsed Jones-Wright on Monday.) Jones-Wright, meanwhile, is aligned with criminal justice reformers not just on FOSTA but on asset forfeiture, cash bail, and other issues.
This is one of several hotly contested prosecutor elections this year—part of an ongoing national trend of reform-minded defense attorneys shaking up what used to be quiet races. In fact, there have only been three contested D.A. elections in San Diego over the past quarter century.
Reason spoke with Jones-Wright about how a public defender ends up running for D.A., how a prosecutor's office should measure success, and the reality of sex work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
REASON: You're a public defender running for district attorney. There's this perception that you either have a prosecutor's mindset or a defense attorney's mindset, and ne'er the twain shall meet. What do you think of that?
JONES-WRIGHT: My story is a little different. A lot of people think that way, although we do see some prosecutors going over to private practice and there's some people in my office who became prosecutors because they had their eye on a judgeship. As for me, I wanted to be a prosecutor after the O.J. Simpson case. It was only because of my experiences and where I grew up, where the interactions with the court and law enforcement and prosecutors weren't a positive thing, and through learning more about the justice system itself, that I decided that wasn't going to be for me, to be a deputy D.A. and a tool in the mass incarceration machine. But I started off believing I would be a prosecutor and even interviewed with prosecutorial agencies while at law school.
REASON: What about the O.J. case made you want to be a prosecutor?
JONES-WRIGHT: I felt like the prosecution flubbed the case. Even as a high schooler I knew the prosecution didn't do a great job, and I felt they were the very reason the family members were denied justice. I watched the case every single day in school—it was all the rage—and watching it I thought, "Wow, the victims did not get justice." It was a direct result of the prosecutors. In my own high school senior mind I said, "I'll show them how to do it."
The problem was there wasn't this holistic or comprehensive view of people who were justice-involved. I want to change the culture from where it's all about over-incarcerating people and not helping people. That's the mindset I want to bring: People are humans, not numbers or statistics. In a lot of D.A. offices the measure of success is the conviction rate. How many people have you put in jail and for how long? I want to change that to: How many people are we helping? How many people did we help put their lives back together? How many kids did we prevent from ever coming into the justice system?
Being a public defender, I have a balanced perspective because I do understand that it's humans who are affected by decisions and policies that come out of D.A. offices, and when someone is justice-involved, how that can affect generations to come. And so we talk about preventing crime, but we also have to talk about preventing harm. That's what I would bring to the D.A. office.
REASON: I've heard you say in debates something along the lines of "the person being prosecuted today was a victim yesterday." Could you explain what you mean by that?
JONES-WRIGHT: A lot of my clients—and I work on the adult side—they come in with their own personal histories, just like we all do. Most of my clients come in with a juvenile dependency record and/or a juvenile delinquency record. And when we have children who were in our justice system, we know that they've been failed by the system somewhere. The education system, the foster care system, their parents—someone along the way failed them.
I don't see those things as being isolated. A lot of my clients were abused by their parents physically and/or emotionally. The same people that the D.A. office says they were trying to protect before are the same people they're prosecuting now because the trauma wasn't addressed.
REASON: In the criminal justice system, prosecutors have incredible power in charging and every step up through sentencing. What are your plans to implement this holistic view, as you called it, to criminal justice?
JONES-WRIGHT: The first thing is integrity and not overcharging cases. I see that in cases where I really reinforce to the client that they would be better off going to trial rather than taking a plea. That's really hard.
The other part is we have a lot of diversion programs—behavioral health courts, veterans courts, drug courts—but you have to plead guilty in order to get opportunity to participate to these programs. I believe in true diversion, where you don't have to plead guilty to get a case dismissed. Right now, you have to plead guilty, and the D.A. office's stance is if you mess up along the way—and relapse is a part of recovery—that shows you're not serious about completing the program. Your opportunity for dismissal is wrapped in the D.A.'s perspective of how serious you are. So I want to take that out of the district attorney's hands and give people a broader opportunity, so that fewer people will suffer convictions as a result of drug treatment or mental health issues.
REASON: Former San Diego D.A. Bonnie Dumanis was very aggressive in pursuing some civil asset forfeiture cases. What's your stance on the practice?
JONES-WRIGHT: I do not believe we should be in the business of seizing people's assets and property pre-conviction, for sure. We saw a lot of that here in San Diego with Bonnie Dumanis, where charges weren't even levied and a family's life savings were taken.
[Reason wrote extensively about the case of James Slatic and his family, who had their bank accounts seized by the San Diego D.A. after a police raid on his medical marijuana business. Prosecutors waited 16 months, and two weeks after a judge ordered them to return Slatic's money, to file criminal charges against him.]
I am completely against that practice. Now we're seeing where Jeff Sessions is incentivizing local governments to join him in taking people's assets by sharing the profits with the federal government and giving cuts to local government. I'm completely against that as well.
REASON: Your opponent has made the main plank of her campaign about sex trafficking and sex victims. In a debate she said you have a radical position that's not supported by the Democratic Party, and she's also said there basically no such thing as voluntary sex work. Do you think you have a radical position?
JONES-WRIGHT: I don't think it's a radical position. If you look at the opponents of SESTA and FOSTA, these are people who have made it their business to be human rights advocates on behalf of sex workers and human trafficking victims. You have a stellar organization like the ACLU, and you have voluntary sex workers themselves saying this is a bad idea, not only because it puts them in a position where they're less safe but because we're taking away the platform where they communicate with each other.
The fact that she doesn't believe that there's such a thing as a voluntary sex worker means she doesn't live in reality. You have to question her knowledge base. She's completely ignoring and dismissing an entire population, and that's what makes it dangerous. It's not radical at all. It's a common-sense approach to a problem that we have, and human trafficking is a real problem.
They're casting such a wide net over human trafficking that they're pulling in things that are voluntary, consensual decisions between two adults, which then takes away from the resources for combatting true human traffickers. We're also making it so voluntary sex workers can't cooperate with law enforcement. There's a lot of risk and so much danger in her position because it's not rooted in common sense or what we know to be true.
REASON: How about cash bail? There's been a nationwide push to eliminate cash bail and move to things like pre-trial risk assessments and other tools. What do you think of that?
JONES-WRIGHT: I've been a bail ambassador for the ACLU since before I ever declared my candidacy. Bail reform is something that is absolutely necessary and something I'm very passionate about. I have a lot of clients who are coerced into taking plea deals because they can't afford bail. Having that carrot of going home versus sitting in jail and waiting for your day, you're gonna wanna go home. I see where bail affects decisions and results in charges that otherwise may not have been successful at trial, because people will plea to them simply to go home. Poor people are being punished for being poor. We have to take the focus off of the ability to pay bail and put it where it should be, which is public safety. In our current cash bail system, if you're dangerous but have the money, you can go home. That doesn't keep communities safe.
REASON: Your opponent has also referred to you as an "anti-D.A. D.A. candidate." What sort of relationship do you think you'll have with line prosecutors and police officers while also holding them accountable?
JONES-WRIGHT: Her position is not rooted in fact at all, and she knows this. This is just fear-mongering. You can't be a successful public defender for 12 years and not work with the D.A.s, not have that relationship of respect. There's a lot of support in that office for me. I work with police officers every single day. I just came from chairing my gang documentation committee. I work with lieutenants and sergeants. She knows that's not true. She sits on the commission with me and she knows the work I've done. Her bringing in this language seeks to take away from a platform that's resonating with community members. People want a justice system that's one justice system. Not based on where you live, not based on your income level, not based on your race, not based on your gender. We don't have that in San Diego.
If the notion of ending the school-to-prison pipeline, testing every single rape kit, putting an end to this cash bail system that doesn't keep us safe is anti-DA, then I don't know what she is. The point is I'm pro-justice, pro-accountability. I'm anti-corruption. I want to bring true justice to San Diego, and that's just the end of it.