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When Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Alameda Assembymember Rob Bonta as California attorney general last year after Xavier Becerra left to join the Biden administration, there was a lot of praise and little surprise about the decision. Brainy and energetic, the Yale law school graduate had the credentials and had long been seen as a rising political force. He was also a member in strong standing of his party’s dominant progressive wing and hailed as an aggressive advocate of criminal justice reforms. That he would be the first Filipino American to be attorney general in California was also a major milestone. Five of the 10 U.S. metro areas with the most Filipinos are in California, including San Diego.
But there are growing reasons to wonder whether he really wants to be the constructive, candid attorney general California needs. His refusal to really address deep concerns about Proposition 47, adopted by state voters in 2014, and Proposition 57, enacted in 2016, is on display in a wafer-thin response in The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board’s Q&A. It’s also evident in his refusal to be interviewed by news outlets from Politico to ABC 10 in Sacramento for stories about his campaign.
Proposition 47 more than doubled the monetary threshold for when people could be charged for felony theft, raising it to $950. Police chiefs, district attorneys and many crime victims say it has led to a culture of impunity in which brazen thefts are committed over and over by people who realize they face little consequence. But the problems with this poorly crafted sentencing reform are even worse than some critics assert: In states across the nation, lessening the legal consequences for drug offenders have undermined incentives for these offenders to participate in drug-court enrollment — perhaps by as much as 50 percent in California.
Proposition 57 was every bit as flawed. Billed as a smart way to keep nonviolent offenders out of state prison, it amended the state Constitution to define rape of an unconscious person, malicious wounding of a child, some types of domestic violence, assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer and many other similar crimes as “nonviolent.”
Our editorial board has long supported criminal justice reform. Too many young offenders face onerous punishments that prevent them from salvaging their lives. But when supposed reforms come along that help lead 78 percent of state voters to express alarm about crime — as happened in February — that hurts the cause. Because 26 months of the pandemic have likely had a downward effect on some crime rates, Bonta and some defenders of 47 and 57 have at times disputed the idea that crime is really the problem that so many think. But that will be of little consolation to the store owners facing bankruptcy because of mass shoplifting and to the victims of the stunning surge in vehicle break-ins in San Francisco — including 3,000 in November alone.
Bonta will be more inclined to keep ducking substantive comment on the issue if his fall opponent is former U.S. Attorney Nathan Hochman, a capable and admired lawyer but also a Republican who once served in George W. Bush’s Justice Department and who is running in a state that rarely elects the GOP to constitutional offices like this. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert would be a far more formidable rival. She’s a Republican-turned-independent, pro-choice, even-keeled disdainer of Donald Trump who was the first gay person elected to countywide office in Sacramento. In interviews, she’s wondered what’s progressive about telling people “that domestic violence is a nonviolent crime.” But she’s hardly a law-and-order caricature. She faults the state for inadequate rehabilitation funding to help offenders rebound. In our Q&A, she praised state laws limiting officers’ use of force and promoting transparency.
It is on this issue that Bonta should face far more heat. As an Assembly member, he blasted state laws and court rulings that he said had the effect of protecting rogue officers from consequences for their actions — and allowed them to readily transfer to new jobs when their departments were fed up with their continuing misconduct. In his early days as attorney general, he vowed to do a far better job on the issue than his predecessor, which shouldn’t have been hard. In 2019, Becerra threatened to punish a journalism program associated with UC Berkeley because it had legally obtained records of crimes committed by 3,500 past and present law enforcement officers — a police state tactic and abuse of power that will haunt Becerra’s image forever.
Incredibly, however, The Mercury-News and East Bay Times editorial boards reported this month that Bonta continued his predecessor’s court fight to block release of some records chronicling extensive police misconduct. Californians deserve better than that from the state’s top cop. Schubert has far more promise to be an independent voice who doesn’t stonewall when pressed on her policies. We endorse Schubert for attorney general and look forward to a campaign between her and Bonta where he’s forced to address the issues much more.