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Meet the Public Defender Who Wants to Be San Diego’s Top Prosecutor

Public defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright, in her career history and perspective, would change direction from the law-and-order, tough-on-crime mindset that has dominated district attorney races not just in San Diego, but around the country.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright was driving home from Mission Beach last year when an SDPD officer began to follow her back to southeastern San Diego, where she was raised and lives today.

She pulled over in front of the Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park — where she earlier in the day had taught Lincoln High’s mock trial students. Officers with guns drawn told her to exit the vehicle. A crowd gathered. Officers put Jones-Wright in handcuffs in the back of their car while drug dogs searched her car. Officers soon determined an error at the DMV had led them to believe her car was stolen. She was sent on her way.

She’s now running to be San Diego’s next district attorney.

Jones-Wright was well into a career in public service by the time of the January 2016 incident, which she captured on video and which has been viewed 51,000 times on her Facebook page.

She’s been a deputy public defender in her hometown since 2006, after getting her law degree from Howard University School of Law. She’s also a volunteer attorney for the California Innocence Project and a commissioner on San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention.

She’s the only Democrat so far to challenge interim District Attorney Summer Stephan in the 2018 race to be the county’s top prosecutor.

Jones-Wright, in her career history and perspective, would change direction from the law-and-order, tough-on-crime mindset that has dominated district attorney races not just in San Diego, but around the country.

She’s also part of a small but growing nationwide trend toward reform-minded prosecutors.

In Philadelphia, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won the Democratic primary to become the city’s next DA, claiming the office is out of control and pledging an end to stop-and-frisk, civil asset forfeiture and cash-bail imprisonment, and promising to confront police misconduct.

In Houston, Kim Ogg became the first Democrat in 40 years elected DA of Harris County last year on a pledge to reverse the county’s history of imprisoning more people by directing prosecutorial resources to ever smaller crimes.

The movement of reform-minded DAs winning office has included Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and St. Louis, as Governing magazine reported earlier this year.

David Alan Sklansky, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said there’s a dramatic trend of progressive reformers winning district attorney races. Ten years ago, if those races were competitive at all, they were determined by who could portray themselves as being toughest on crime. With the Trump administration reversing the federal government’s direction on criminal justice, that local trend could become more pronounced, he said.

“In a number of races, candidates have run successfully to be head prosecutor on platforms stressing the needs for constitutional rights, safeguards on wrongful convictions and a balanced approach to criminal justice,” he said. “There’s no reason to think someone can’t be a prosecutor because they’ve been a public defender, and it’s certainly consistent with the broader national trend.”

Jones-Wright will now put the message to the test in San Diego County, where Republicans have long dominated. Her opponent has the support of virtually all of the region’s law enforcement officials, including San Diego’s Democratic city attorney, Mara Elliott.

Jones-Wright sat down to discuss her life, her decision to run for district attorney and her thoughts on the region’s criminal justice system.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What was it that you saw growing up in your life, or in your community, that made you think about becoming a lawyer or running for office?

My mom was a single parent, and … I always saw her working really, really hard, and not really getting as far as she wanted to go. She still works in custodial services at the hospital, but I saw my mother be a cafeteria worker at Lincoln High School. … What I saw a lot of growing up was that the stories had already been written for people like me. Being born to an unwed mother who was still pretty young when she had me … there was a lot of things that people would say about me because of where I grew up where they would say, “Well you’re not going to make it to college, you’re not going to do that.” And so I lived my life saying, “No. I write my story.”

What about being a public defender do you enjoy, and what are the struggles?

I look at my client and I see them as a human despite what the headlines read, despite what the charges are, and I look and I say, “What can we do to help you? Is there any way that we can help you?” A lot of people think that being a public defender or a defense attorney, your goal is always get someone off – it’s not. You’re there as a bridge to resources. Most of the time, a lot of my work is actually social work. I get down to the bottom of the root of the criminal activity, and I say, “OK, are you open to drug treatment?” I look into my client’s dependency files, and a lot of my clients have had hard times growing up and they’ve been raised in the system. And so I’m able to paint that picture for judges and say, “Well this person doesn’t need this. They actually need this.”

Why did you decide this was a good time to run for office?

I had actually even interviewed with different prosecutorial offices and agencies across the nation when I was at Howard Law, and the thing that I found was that my answers for these prosecutorial agencies were a bit too comprehensive. I had an eye towards a total comprehensive look at justice, where you advocate for victims but you also try to help where you can so that offenders who are not as violent as your murderers and rapists, will not escalate their offenses. My answers were a little too compassionate for those offices, because at that time I think as a nation more prosecutorial agencies were just more of the law-and-order, and “We’re going to lock everyone up,” and now we’ve moved to the rehabilitation kind of message where we were before. So I like to say I was probably before my time. And so now, it is the time. I’ve been looking at the landscape of this city … and because I work with the district attorney’s office day in and day out, I see the problems in that office, and I think that they have a culture of “win at any cost,” and that’s a problem.

Do you think it’s a commonly shared belief that they have that mindset?

I think what really shows that is the article where Bonnie Dumanis and her staff were actually padding numbers. To me, that shows a misplaced focus. If your focus is to make it look like you convict more people than you do, then that is misplaced. You should be focused on justice, not your conviction numbers. That is something I would change.

Would it be fair to say you see yourself as a reform-minded candidate, that you would align yourself with other criminal justice reformers around the country?

Here’s what I will say. I am not a former prosecutor. So I’m not a part of the status quo. I could come in with fresh eyes, unbiased. I have a much-needed perspective that is new and fresh, and that is what the DA’s office needs. A district attorney should absolutely be a part of the fabric of law-making. A district attorney should absolutely be working with elected officials and other representatives to make sure that our communities are safer. But the district attorney also has to have a balance and understand that the old system of simply locking people up doesn’t work. We can’t just warehouse offenders. Whether that’s called a reformer or not, I’m saying my perspective is the better perspective because we have to look at the comprehensive justice system.

How do you respond to people who are concerned about electing a prosecutor who has never been a prosecutor?

It goes back to again not being a career prosecutor. … I believe my career as a criminal defense attorney, and a public defender, has actually equipped me to be the best district attorney because I understand what collaboration is needed. I understand that you have to work collaboratively across the public safety group, and across communities, involve everyone. You can’t be the district attorney on an island and say, “We know what’s best for everyone” and not look to your partners in justice.

If you think the DA’s office holds an old mentality of being tough on crime, how do you manage the deputy DAs who won’t be going anywhere regardless of the outcome of the election?

Contrary to what people may think, I’m actually friends with some of them – they’re on speed dial. So the thing is that I think there is a myth that all DAs are one way, and just like public defenders they are all across the political spectrum. And so you have, and I’ll say this I believe every single district attorney wakes up wanting to do justice. They want to do good. No one in that office wakes up and just wants to screw over someone’s life. I don’t believe that. But there has to be training, and there has to be policy-making, and that’s what I would do as a district attorney because you do have some of those people from the older guard who do still have that kind of status quo mentality, but the younger folks I interact with, they’re progressive in some sort of way. They wouldn’t be diametrically or diabolically opposed to me being the district attorney. We agree on a lot of things about how cases are settled. … We have a relationship of respect. And so I don’t think that there would be some sort of mutiny. If someone decided that they wanted to abandon their post, and stop the good work that they’ve been doing because I became DA, then I would have to question whether or not that was actually their passion or their life’s work or if they ever believed it. But I’m not going to come in and turn the world upside down.

You’re on the city’s commission related to gang activity. In one hearing, you were critical of District Attorney Dumanis for not really ever showing up. What has that commission and your work taught you about how she and local law enforcement have pursued gang-related prosecutions?

I was frustrated in that meeting because I had been on the commission for maybe nine months and she had never been to a meeting. This was a person who was a dedicated officeholder … So when you are charged with a duty of making recommendations to the City Council and the mayor about gang-related policy, and you’re the DA, and you’re nowhere near these meetings, then I have to question why that is.

Based on your experience, what is the error in the city’s current gang policy?

This won’t be breaking news to any of the lieutenants the captains that I work with on the committee. There has to be the striking of a balance between people’s civil rights and their personal rights, and the need for law enforcement to conduct investigations and to curb gang activity. … A big concern of mine is the criteria, and how it is used. I believe it casts a wide net so you’re actually catching more people into that net than you need, and that can have an adverse effect. You have individuals who are not gang members but simply because of where they live, or where they go to school, where they may work and how they dress, they’re now in this net. And that is a huge problem because that has a drastic impact on employment, it has a drastic impact on your life in general.

Do you think that the district attorney’s office has appropriately handled officer-involved shootings?

The district attorney’s job is to make sure people who break the law answer to the law and recognize that no one is above the law. If a police officer happened to break the law, then the DA’s office must be ready and willing to prosecute that particular police officer. What I’ve seen from the office is that from 2005 to 2015 there were 155 officer-involved shootings. We know that those are high numbers of shootings and a very low number of anything that resulted in charges or even an investigation. I think common sense says we know those numbers don’t work. Humans are fallible, and 155 times in 10 years, that DA’s office has said not one time an officer should be held accountable. I think the numbers tell us something. I believe the district attorney’s office needs to start weighing in on policies that could help decrease officer-involved shootings. … That is absolutely something that’s in the purview of the district attorney. I haven’t seen that with this office, and that’s something I would do differently as DA.

Racial profiling has been another high-profile issue in the city, culminating in this racial profiling study that didn’t translate into many big changes in the city. How do you feel about how that situation played out, from commissioning the study to how it’s been embraced?

We know it took a while for this study to even be commissioned, so it was a little disheartening to find out that after we’ve waited so many years for the findings of this study, to discover that the results were watered down. The study itself honestly only confirms what people of color have been experiencing for a long time in San Diego. And so, the study, I believed, was going to be a good opportunity for our City Council members to actually do something meaningful and for our chief and SDPD to do something meaningful. We had a study that said that black and brown people are stopped and searched at a higher rate than their white counterparts, and yet are less likely to be found a with contraband, and yet when it came down to actually implement things that could remedy this, I believe that our leaders ducked that responsibility. They said ‘OK these are your findings, great, but I don’t have to add here to your suggestions or recommendations.’ And I don’t believe today that there have been any sort of solutions that have been put in place, and I think that that is a serious concern.

What would you have liked to have seen the city take from the study?

Honestly the one that was bargained out of the report, where officers would cut down on the amount of stops that they do if it wasn’t for speeding, or running a red light – if it was a simple minor traffic offense, they’d note the license plate and send a letter. I think that that would be effective and something that’s easy to do and would not waste resources. I was pretty shocked that this is something that was cut because there would be no buy-in from the Police Department.

When you talk about racial profiling, or how gang databases are being used, are you worried that what individual officers will hear is that you don’t support them?

First, racial profiling is a reality. It is something that has to be acknowledged, the fact that there is systemic and individual biases within SDPD, per an independent study, means that in order to remedy that, we have to try to look for solutions. If someone is not willing to be trained to be a better police officer, then they are probably not fit to be a police officer … if you can’t treat people with dignity or respect, I don’t believe that this is the occupation for you.

Can you tell me about your encounter with SDPD?

I was leaving a co-worker’s memorial service down at the beach area. … I was headed back home and an officer began to follow me all the way from the beach area until I got off on my exit in southeast San Diego, so that was quite a distance. As I was looking in the rearview mirror, there were more patrol cars coming behind me. There weren’t any sirens or lights on, but then as I was going to make the turn onto my street, then they put the sirens and the lights on. I had no clue what I had done. I didn’t commit any traffic violations. It ended up with me being placed in the back of the patrol car, being handcuffed … and placed into the back of the patrol car while they searched my vehicle with dogs. Based on that particular incident, I obviously have an intimate perception of what it means to have an unpleasant experience. I called Chief Zimmerman, and I called her as a person that I believed could make change in that department. I didn’t want to talk with anyone else. I didn’t want anyone’s head on a platter. I wasn’t calling for these officers to be fired. … She invited me down to her office and we talked very candidly, and I respected that about her.

It ended up being a clerical error with the DMV, but the overriding questions were, one, why did you run my plates in the first place? Officers can do that, but you chose to run my plates. And then, how I was treated. There was never a, ‘Hello ma’am, license, registration, insurance.’ It was simply, ‘Get out of the car, take your keys out of your car,’ with guns drawn. … It could have been handled a lot differently. … I was in the back of the patrol car for a lot of minutes with a canine sniffing through my trunk and on my car.

What types of things did Chief Zimmerman have to say? When you say, ‘This didn’t have to happen this way’ Did she give you any sort of perspective you hadn’t thought of? Did she agree that incident didn’t need to play out that way?

It came down to one word: discretion. That’s what she said. It came down to discretion and we both agreed on that. And you know it goes back to exercise of discretion and why we need a district attorney who would exercise discretion in the right way. But you know she’s very big on training her officers. And so we talked about what needs to be implemented in training so that this wouldn’t happen again.

Did she agree that that incident didn’t need to play out that way?

What she expressed to me was that it seemed a lack of discretion, or that discretion was exercised in a way in that particular situation that it didn’t have to be that.

Do you think you were pulled over because you are black?

Do I have to answer that? What I will say is that I was one of three black people at a service in a nonblack area, and that I was the only person who was followed from that area back to southeast San Diego. That’s what I can say objectively. I can’t tell you precisely that it was because I was black. But you can draw your own conclusion.

Do you think if I was driving a car that had a clerical error with mistaken plates on it, that if I was pulled over, a gun would be drawn when I was pulled over?

Probably not, and I also don’t think that there would have been as many patrol cars.

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