Judge Diana Becton, one of PSR’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, is the first African American woman to be elected district attorney of Contra Costa County, California and a retired judge of the Superior Court. She reflects on how she is keeping our communities safe in this time of global pandemic. See Judge Becton’s full Distinguished Alumni profile here.
Coping During the Pandemic
The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been declared by the World Health Organization to be a global pandemic, and we are all grappling with how the virus affects the health and safety of our communities. I am grateful for my time of academic study at Pacific School of Religion, because it sharpened my lens in preparation for transformative leadership that holds both justice and fairness in the forefront.
As a prosecutor, I recognize the responsibility to keep our community safe, and that the responsibility extends to the entire community, including those behind bars. This responsibility draws attention to a pressing need to take concrete steps to reduce the threat of disastrous outbreaks in our detention facilities. My top priority is protecting everyone’s health during the crisis.
My office is working to ensure that we only request in custody status for those few individuals who present a danger to our community. The Sheriff has issued directives to law enforcement agencies that only individuals who have committed serious or violent crimes, were arrested for domestic violence, or have violated a restraining order will be accepted into custody.
We are delaying the prosecution of non-violent cases that do not impact public safety and declining to prosecute low-level offenders that do not pose a risk to the public. Along with our justice partners we are working daily to identify and review cases that involve elderly and medically vulnerable individuals who may be released from custody. We have also worked with our partners to review for release individuals who are within 60 days of completing their sentence. In ongoing efforts to reduce mass incarceration, we partnered with Code for America in January 2020 to clear over 3,264 marijuana convictions eligible for relief under Proposition 64.
We have also worked with Youth Restorative Justice Diversion, in partnership with Impact Justice and RYSE Youth Center, and the Georgetown University Project to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. We established the first Conviction Integrity Unit in Contra Costa County to investigate wrongful convictions, claims of actual innocence, and cases where there may be a significant integrity issue and the Sentencing Review Project to consider certain cases for possible re-sentencing recommendations
Prosecutors are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system. We have far reaching discretionary powers to determine which charges to pursue, to make bail recommendations, and recommend sentences.