Two Democrats running for Santa Clara County district attorney are trading barbs as they outline dramatically different visions for Silicon Valley’s top prosecutor.
Incumbent District Attorney Jeff Rosen and deputy public defender Sajid Khan shared their priorities for the job during a Friday forum held by the Democratic 21st Century Club in San Jose, the longest-standing democratic club in Santa Clara County. A third candidate in the race, Daniel Chung, does not have a party preference and did not participate.
Rosen, first elected in 2010, has run unopposed in the last two elections—and his name was floated last year as a possible candidate for state attorney general. Khan, who is running left of Rosen, attacked his opponent for prosecuting children, using cash bail to keep defendants in jail and securing convictions with coercive plea-bargaining tactics. He said the county needs a district attorney who will fight against mass incarceration, address the root causes of systemic racism and prevent violent crime by investing in mental health services and alternatives to jail.
“We need to re-shape the culture of our DA’s office to be one rooted and centered in healing, justice and safety,” Khan said.
Rosen called the accusation about cash bail false, noting he helped write the bill that eliminated cash bail in California. Rosen defended his reputation as a balanced prosecutor, noting that under his watch, the DA’s office has enjoyed a high conviction rate and the county experienced a decline in crime. He also noted his office has helped reduce the number of people incarcerated in the county jail system by filing fewer cases and using diversion programs like drug treatment to keep low-level offenders out of jail.
He dismissed the idea that a public defender would have a broad enough perspective to do his job.
“Why would we have a deputy public defender now be the DA?” Rosen said. “You need to have balance in a system, and what I practice is reform that works.”
Khan outlined several ideas—general and specific—for changing the culture of the DA’s office. He said he would refocus the office’s model from one that he called punitive to one focused on rehabilitation and healing. He said he would also make it a priority to fight against the creation of a new 500-person jail, which the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently approved.
Rosen credited his office with helping Santa Clara County achieve the lowest crime rate of any large county in the U.S., but emphasized he’s continuously trying new ideas. He cited as an example the creation of a cold case unit to prosecute unsolved murders.
Rosen noted his office has also made changes to take into account racial inequities, including no longer filing cases for so-called “attitude arrests,” which are disproportionately brought against African-Americans. Rosen said he wants more community prosecutors who run neighborhood programs to reduce truancy and improve public safety.
Khan said he would also end the practice of pursuing three strike prosecutions and gang enhancements. He would also look into re-sentencing for the 25 people currently on death row due to Santa Clara County prosecutions, as well as the scores of prisoners charged as adults for crimes they committed as teenagers. Rosen opposed Senate Bill 1391, which bars prosecuting 14-and 15-year-olds as adults.
“Our incumbent fought that law in Sacramento and fought that law in courts,” Khan said. “If it were up to our incumbent DA, that number (of prisoners) would be a lot higher.”
Rosen pushed back on this critique, saying his office has tried more than 10,000 cases involving juveniles over the last five years, and has only asked for 15 of those cases to be tried as adults. He noted these cases involved serious violent crimes, using the lurid example of a teenager who was lured and killed by another teen “just to see what it feels like.”
“It’s easy to say don’t prosecute them as an adult, treat them as a child, let them out in a year or two,” Rosen said. “You have that conversation with the neighborhood where the crime occurred, and with those parents who are still grieving.”