Brooke Jenkins sparred with her former boss and the current Los Angeles district attorney in an unusual debate between two of the state’s most powerful DAs—as well as a handful of the state’s DAs who still carry the mantle of reform—which she campaigned against.
San Francisco’s tough-on-crime district attorney publicly clashed with her progressive Los Angeles counterpart over their dueling views on crime and punishment.
The heated exchange between Brooke Jenkins and George Gascón was caught on video Friday during a University of San Francisco panel of mostly progressive prosecutors.
Sparks started flying while they sat side-by-side on a panel where Gascon railed against carceral justice in what seemed like a veiled critique of Jenkins.
“We know that concrete boxes don’t cure mental health just like they don’t cure cancer,” Gascón said. “If we are not honest about it and if we’re not willing to tell our community that we cannot fix every social ill, we are actually doing harm.”
The debate reflected broader tensions between reform-minded and hard-on-crime prosecutors.
Gascón was joined on the panel by fellow progressive DAs—Diana Becton and Pamela Price, from Contra Costa and Alameda counties, respectively—along with the more conservative San Mateo County DA Steve Wagstaffe.
This was no campaign debate since each DA already won a recent election—but it showed how the future of criminal justice reforms in California remains an open question despite the ascendance of more conservative prosecutors like Jenkins.
Gascón—who served as San Francisco’s DA from 2011 to 2019—has increasingly held himself up as a progressive prosecutor. The newly elected Price in Alameda and reelected Becton in Contra Costa likewise campaigned as reformers. Their opposite on the panel and in politics, Jenkins ran a tough-on-crime campaign against her former boss and progressive poster child Chesa Boudin.
The panel’s discussion about how to balance punishment with rehabilitation was encapsulated by the question that almost all of the California prosecutors have made central to their political futures: whether or not harsh punishment will deter crime.
The panel grew from a simmer to near-boiling after Gascón condemned incarceration as a one-size-fits-all approach to solving social issues. He said he tells every prosecutor he hires that they have the same obligation as doctors: Do no harm.
“We need to look at our interventions and ask, 'Am I really fixing anything or am I actually causing a bigger problem?'” Gascón said. He continued by saying that data shows that few people who go to jail come out any different, so prosecutors who focus on putting people in jail as a tool to make streets safer often just prolong the problems they are trying to solve.
Jenkins’ response, which focused on her responsibility to the victims of crimes instead of the disproportionate number of Black and Latino people in jail, seemed to be a direct contradiction of Gascón’s point about data showing that relying on jails to solve social ills has not worked.
“We have to include victims in this part of the dialogue: What data also shows is that the majority of victims of crimes are Black and Brown—my community—the people that look like me,” she added. “I’ve had people who I sent to prison come back and give me a hug and say, 'Thank you.'”
Jenkins then seemingly criticized DAs who have little to no actual courtroom experience. Jenkins and Wagstaffe, San Mateo’s DA, were the only two such lawyers on the panel with extensive courtroom experience as prosecutors. Price spent much of her career as a criminal defense attorney, Becton as a judge and Gascón as a police officer before being elected DAs.
Jenkins said handling heinous cases involving child molestation, murder and hate crimes gave her insight into how these crimes have impacted victims. Those victims, she continued, deserve a DA who will look at the facts and use whatever is at their disposal to prosecute those cases.
“There are really terrible people in our society, I am sorry to say,” Jenkins said. “You don’t want me to eliminate my tools when that person comes across your child or mother.”
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org