In the winner-takes-all world of electoral politics, it’s always helpful for both sides to have convenient boogeymen. Liberals love to depict the Koch brothers as the scourge of our political system. They are GOP-oriented billionaires who fund free-market causes. Likewise, conservatives often rant about the supposed evils of George Soros, the New York-based billionaire whose Open Society Foundations fund liberal priorities.
As we head into election season, it’s common to see this phenomenon in action. For instance, last month Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gave a stem-winder in the Senate about the need to “rid our political system of dark money.” She mentioned the Kochs five times. The Koch brothers network, by the way, is reportedly spending $400 million on various efforts during the midterm election cycle, including $20 million promoting the value of the GOP tax plan.
Meanwhile, the epithets hurled at Soros — easily found with a Google search titled “Soros” and “evil” — range from overheated to unprintable. In this election cycle, wealthy donors including Soros “are spending millions of dollars to back would-be prosecutors who want to reduce incarceration, crack down on police misconduct and revamp a bail system they contend unfairly imprisons poor people before a trial,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times report.
Some of that money is flowing into district attorney races in San Diego and Sacramento, which has become a lightning rod for the campaigns. The focus on money is too bad, because money isn’t what’s important from a policy perspective. (Note to the naïve: Rich people on the left and the right have always funded political efforts and always will. Efforts to get money out of politics simply directs it through a more circuitous path, such as Super PACS.)
I am pleased by the attention to these issues, regardless of who is funding what. Races for district attorney are one-dimensional affairs regardless of party affiliation. Candidates A and B pander to police unions to secure their endorsement. They outdo each other with their law-and-order rhetoric. They do this when crime rates are high and they do it when crime rates are at historic lows. It’s just what they do. They rarely talk about other important issues.
What else is there to discuss beyond who will do the best job locking up bad guys and throwing away the key?
Well, how about the civil liberties of the county’s residents? One of the key insights of the founding fathers was that government does not always get it right. Hence, the Constitution’s focus on probable cause and due process. Those protections are built into our system, but it matters whether a DA believes that pursuing justice is the core purpose of the job — or whether the DA sees these protections as impediments that should be circumvented.
One need only look at the DA’s office in Orange County, where a scandal over the use of jailhouse snitches has led to new trials in some murder cases and has shaken up the entire justice system there, to see what’s at stake. That race, which pits a “law-and-order” challenger against the “law-and-order” incumbent, is reflective of the no-win choices voters usually face in these prosecutor races.
How about government accountability? We all understand that police officers have a tough job and sometimes must use deadly force. But some police use-of-force incidents are anger-inducing and egregious. This issue has been the cause of protests and debate throughout the country. It matters whether a DA is willing to reform such force policies and whether that DA will take a hard line on police officers who abuse their authority.
Prosecutors can let the unions, which have a legitimate but single-minded purpose of defending all of their members, drive policy. Or they can drive policy decisions based on what’s best for the public, with a focus on getting rogue officers off the street. How about public records? District attorneys can behave secretively or transparently. They can work with county sheriffs to develop innovative programs that attempt to reduce incarceration rates or they can focus mainly on running up the score on convictions. These policies matter.
By the way, who would you guess made the following point? “Our communities are safest when the criminal justice system respects human dignity. … We support reforms that improve communication between police and citizens and that reduce recidivism by removing barriers to opportunity.” That’s from the right-of-center Charles Koch Institute. That should send liberals for a loop, given that the dreaded Kochs back justice reform, too.
Quite frankly, if it weren’t for outside involvement, DA races would center on the same-old tough talk and the same-old policies. At least these outsiders are jump-starting more serious local debates about criminal-justice reform. It’s long overdue.
(Full disclosure: The free-market think tank I work for is one of the rare groups that has received funding from both Koch- and Soros-related foundations.)