National News

Billionaire Soros backs criminal justice reforms

Posted May 9, 2018 7:32 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO -- Billionaire philanthropist George Soros has dropped at least $275,000 into district attorney races throughout Northern California, supporting candidates who advocate reduced incarceration and other criminal justice reforms.

Such issues have long been a passion for Soros, who in past years has funded state ballot measures to legalize marijuana and weaken the ``three strikes'' sentencing law. He's also tipped district attorney elections in other parts of the country -- last year a Soros-backed political action committee helped clinch the win for civil rights attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.

This year, the liberal financier has funneled contributions into the California Justice & Public Safety Political Action Committee, which is paying for campaign mailers and advertisements in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as Sacramento, ahead of the June 5 state primary.

In Alameda County, the committee has spent $131,158 on Oakland civil rights attorney Pamela Price, who is challenging District Attorney Nancy O'Malley on the June ballot.

Price gained prominence two years ago as the attorney representing the teen at the center of Oakland's police sexual misconduct scandal. Her campaign platform calls for abolishing the death penalty, holding police accountable, protecting immigrants and ending mass incarceration.

O'Malley, who is seeking a third term, has received donations from the San Francisco Police Officers Association, as well as several prosecutors, judges and law enforcement consultants.

The California Justice & Public Safety Political Action Committee has spent $49,647 in support of Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, who was appointed in September to replace Mark Peterson, who resigned amid charges that he inappropriately spent campaign funds.

Becton, who is both the first woman and the first African American district attorney in Contra Costa, is emphasizing bail reform and trying to mend racial disparities in the justice system. Her opponent, Paul Graves, is running on public safety issues and has backing from various county law enforcement agencies, as well as victim advocate Marc Klaas.

Soros has also nudged the district attorney's race in Sacramento, which pits progressive challenger Noah Phillips against the more centrist incumbent Anne Marie Schubert. The PAC has spent $277,685 on Phillips, much of it coming from contributions made last week.

It's unusual to have a contested district attorney's race to begin with, said retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell. Usually one person retains the job for term after term, and the seat opens up only when that person retires or dies.

And the people who get elected as district attorney tend to be conservative law-and-order types, not outsiders pressing for criminal justice reform, Cordell said. She attributes the sudden flare of progressive challenges to the Black Lives Matter movement, which draws attention to inequality in the justice system.

Soros is using his money and influence to fix that, Cordell said.

``He's trying to bring in people of color and other candidates who want to change the system,'' she said.