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For the first time in nearly a decade, Sacramento will have a new district attorney, as the county’s current top prosecutor Anne Marie Schubert steps away to run for California attorney general.
The position represents one of the highest law enforcement officers in the region, and is rarely vacated. Prior to Schubert taking office in 2014, Jan Scully held the position for two decades.
The outcome will be historic, regardless of the winner. Sacramento County has never had a Black or Asian district attorney. With the two candidates currently running, Sacramento will have a person of color holding this seat for the first time. Both candidates say they can bring a perspective not previously had within this office.
The two candidates running are:
- Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho
- Alana Mathews, a former Sacramento county prosecutor and the Director of Training, Policy Resources and Membership for the Prosecutor’s Alliance, a group of progressive California prosecutors.
Whoever is elected will have the power to set the tone for how laws are enforced and how justice is determined. For example, when a person is accused of committing a crime, the district attorney’s office determines the criminal charges that person will face.
The new district attorney will also be charged with enforcing many police reform laws, which advocates and some lawmakers have been calling on for years.
The office has recently set the tone for certain high-profile police violence cases in Sacramento. In her time, Schubert’s office oversaw the investigation of Stephon Clark’s death and determined no criminal charges would be pressed against the officers who killed him. She also had a hand in capturing and sentencing the Golden State Killer.
Below are a selection of questions CapRadio reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan asked them about their campaigns.
The following answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
On why they’re running for this office
Alana Mathews: I made the decision in December of 2020 to run because I grew up in an area that was pretty much defined by high crime, high unemployment, homicide, gang violence, gun violence, robberies. And it was that type of random and graphic violence that impacted every area of my life. And I learned that firsthand because it didn't matter that I was an honor student or class president of Girl Scouts, bullets don't have names. I learned I wasn't safe no matter where I lived. That's why I'm running for DA. Not only could I see our region spiraling into this violent abyss that I work so hard to get away from, but I realized that the criminal justice system is not always available to everybody. We normalize crime in certain communities and against certain types of victims, and we've missed critical opportunities to keep our community safe.
Thien Ho: You really have to look at where somebody grew up, because the “where” really answers the “who” and the “who” ultimately answers the “why we do what we do.”
My grandfather was a businessman and owner. He owned land and he lived in Vietnam. When the French began to recede away from Vietnam in the ’50s, the communists came and they wanted to take my grandfather's property. And they arrested my grandmother and left my infant father in the care of his 5-year-old brother. They also arrested another woman … And without a judge, without a jury, without a prosecutor, they convicted both women of treason and sentenced them to death by a firing squad — executed them.
And I tell the story because of this. It's not the judge, it's not the defense attorney, but it's the prosecutor who is the gatekeeper to our system of justice because we're the first and last person to ever see a case. My family has personally experienced injustice. So when we talk about justice and justice is extremely important in this country, I think I have a unique perspective on that.
On their top policy priorities if elected as District Attorney
Alana Mathews: Gun violence, violence against women, and more effective programs for those low-level offenders who are experiencing homelessness, mental illness or substance abuse addictions. I think those three priorities are the most critical areas. We need to have a focus on not only reacting to crime. Certainly we want to hold violent, serious offenders accountable. I will prioritize them and prosecute them vigorously. But we can't just react to crime in the courtroom. We've got to prevent it in the community, and that's where some of those low-level diversion programs come along. But we can also do education and we can restructure the DA's office in a way that we can be more responsive, proactive in the community.
Thien Ho: My top priorities would be, No. 1, gun violence. No. 2, we're dealing with domestic violence. And also our homeless crisis. I believe it's inhumane to allow our fellow siblings to get to die in the streets. Obviously it's housing, but in addition, we need to deal with the mental health and drug addiction. What I've been doing for the last few years is working on these things again and again and again.
On how their race might impact the expectations that voters might have
Alana Mathews: When we look at the communities of people who are most impacted by crime, we have missed that perspective and focus on locking everybody up. You miss the point that you can't incarcerate our way to safety. And cycling people who are experiencing homelessness or substance abuse or mental illness through the jail, that's cruel, and it's not making our communities more safe.
Very similar to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and some of the biased narratives and accusations she's faced, there's this narrative that I'm going to be soft on crime and it doesn't come from my record as a prosecutor. It comes from a connection between crime, fear and race. It is a false narrative that Black and Brown people are more susceptible to commit crimes. So because I'm a Black woman, I'm probably going to be soft on crime or I'm going to be too lenient. I just simply call that out and say that is not the case. I'm in the highest demographic of almost every statistic of crime victims. Why would I be soft on crime and let any criminal out when I'm more likely to be the victim?
Thien Ho: There has never been an Asian American who has been an elected D.A. in Sacramento County ever. There are currently 2,400 elected D.A.'s across the entire country. And of those, do you know how many or AAPI? Eight. Eight, not 8%. And there has also never been a Vietnamese-American or Southeast Asian that has ever been an elected DA in this entire country, ever. So I think it's important for immigrants, for refugees and for AAPIs to really speak up. Because if you've seen here in the last several years, there's been an exponential increase in anti-Asian hate crime and there is a perception that Asian Americans do not speak out, do not stand up. And that stereotype will sometimes make us vulnerable.
I think that I bring a unique perspective being an immigrant, being a refugee, being somebody who grew up in a community that was, frankly, afraid of the police, afraid of immigration, but now works with law enforcement, works in our system of justice.
On taking campaign donations from law enforcement groups
Alana Mathews: I have not accepted money from law enforcement associations. I think that's the most pro-police thing that I can do, because when I have to make a decision, the community can have confidence and trust that it is based on the law and not because I'm getting a financial kickback from it. I also take that stand because I think it's important to have prosecutorial independence. There's nothing worse that undermines our criminal justice system, and the integrity of officers who put on that uniform and go out every day, than the bad officers — the ones who are committing misconduct. And so I think in order to start at a place of prosecutorial independence, it is important to have that line of separation where we work together to protect and serve the community.
Thien Ho: I have received both the endorsement and support of law enforcement, both endorsements and financial as well. But when you look at it in terms of the money that I raised to run ads for this office, it's a very small amount of money that I receive for that. The vast majority of money that I receive is from the AAPI community, from everyday citizens, from business owners. My biggest donor and contributor, frankly, is my mom.
So at the end of the day, in regards to law enforcement and accountability and transparency, it doesn't matter to me whether you wear blue jeans or blue uniform. It doesn't matter whether you're on probation or you're a police officer. If you violate the law — and I follow the facts and the law — I will hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law. The law needs to apply equally to everybody. And having personally experienced injustice, having personally seen the pain and the heartache that comes from injustice in a system of justice that does not treat everybody fairly equally, I make sure that I am that gatekeeper to our system of justice.
On how the Stephon Clark case was handled and if they’d do anything differently
Alana Mathews: I would have handled the communication with the community [differently]. It's very important. I've talked to a number of elected leaders across the political spectrum who also expressed disappointment in the way the press conference was. But I think it was an opportunity to really connect with the community and not further the divide and then to put up a fence. We have to, as DA, remind the community that we all share the values of safety, fairness and justice. And that would have been a great point in time with the information that was made public to show that we have a mental health crisis that's starting.
This young man was seemingly having a mental health break, and all too often when that happens for young Black men, they end up dead. But can you imagine if we would have marked that moment and started putting resources into mental health treatment, into mental health plans? We wouldn't be seeing what we saw now.
Thien Ho: Any time that we have had a loss of life, it is tragic. It is heartbreaking for that person. And for all of our communities when that happens. But again, when you look at any particular case, you have to follow the facts and the law. And ultimately, in that case, the decision that was arrived at by the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office was reviewed by, evaluated by, analyzed by the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, and his very capable office. And they came to the same conclusion. There was also a decision that was reviewed by the United States Department of Justice as well. And so all three organizations arrived at the same conclusion. But at the end of the day, you take all of that away: It was an extremely tragic and heartbreaking loss for him and his family.
Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect title for Thien Ho. It has been corrected.
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