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4 wealthy donors fuel overhaul of California’s criminal justice system

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Criminal justice

The last decade has brought a remarkable shift in how California punishes crime and oversees law enforcement. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

OAKLAND — Four wealthy activists intent on reshaping California’s criminal justice system are gearing up for their biggest test yet against police and prosecutor groups.

The Northern California donors, some with fortunes from major Silicon Valley firms, have already spent millions on progressive prosecutors and ballot fights that have helped untether the state from its tough-on-crime past. Now, California’s 2022 attorney general race could be a landmark moment.

The social justice movement has never lacked for energy, and last year’s police killing of George Floyd sparked waves of support for Black Lives Matter and other efforts that have challenged police policies and sentencing requirements as racist. Progressive donors in recent years have strategically targeted prosecutor races in major cities because district attorneys wield power over sentencing and investigations.

In California, social justice advocates are preparing to defend the state’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is closely aligned with the reform movement and one of the nation’s most liberal AGs. The former state legislator was nominated to the post this year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Bonta’s election contest next year is expected to be a criminal justice bellwether.

“The last 10 years has been the biggest shift I’ve seen in terms of philanthropic interest in this issue,” said Lenore Anderson, who heads Californians for Safety and Justice. “When you have that shift the door is open … because you’re with the wind of change.”

In California, few causes get very far without a pile of money, given how difficult it is to reach 22 million registered voters across several major media markets.

The four donors — Patty Quillin, Quinn Delaney, Elizabeth Simons and Kaitlyn Krieger — channeled $22 million toward criminal justice ballot measures and allied candidates the previous two years, and their campaign contributions have steadily increased each election cycle. They spent $3.7 million alone to elect George Gascón, who rode the social justice wave that swept over America last summer to unseat incumbent Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey in November.

Delaney has been involved in criminal justice fights for decades, launching a foundation with her husband Wayne Jordan — a prominent Bay Area real estate developer — after voters passed a 2000 ballot proposition toughening sentencing for youth offenders.

Quillin is a philanthropist and the wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Simons is a former teacher and the daughter of hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist James Simons. Krieger and her husband, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, run a criminal justice nonprofit.

The last decade has brought a remarkable shift in how California punishes crime and oversees law enforcement. Voters and lawmakers have hit reverse on decades of stringent laws that swelled the state’s prisons, backing a raft of bills and ballot initiatives to diminish penalties and increase police accountability. Reformist district attorneys Gascón in Los Angeles and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco have moved away from traditional approaches.

Bonta is facing attorney general opponents who contend he and other reformist prosecutors are undermining public safety, just as homicide and gun violence rates spike in California cities, a trend that mirrors other U.S. population centers.

Quillin, Delaney, Simons and Krieger have already given maximum contributions to Bonta, and they could pour significantly more into an independent committee that can raise unlimited sums. That account is overseen by Anne Irwin, who manages a central hub for their efforts through Smart Justice California. All four donors sit on the group’s board.

“I think the rhetoric of the 2022 attorney general race is going to resemble the dynamic of status quo, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the key, tough-on-crime versus a new approach to public safety,” Irwin said in an interview.

The major funders have stayed under the radar, and all declined to speak for this story after several interview requests.

They came together in earnest in 2017 with the launch of Smart Justice. Despite victories at the ballot box in 2014 and 2016 that reduced drug and property crime penalties and made it easier for inmates to win parole, Irwin said reformers “were hitting a wall in places we shouldn’t have been hitting a wall” — particularly in the Legislature, where law enforcement unions and groups representing police chiefs and district attorneys wielded significant influence.

Why were we having these ballot initiative victories, but we can’t get legislators, prosecutors or other elected officials to do the right thing? You don’t have to dig too deep to see the political power dynamics at play,” said Irwin, a former public defender who witnessed the potential of redemption after her father was incarcerated. “Our opponents … had deep pockets and we did not. That showed up and we were losing. It turns out it’s doable with some committed donors.”

They enlisted a top operative, former California Democratic Party Executive Director Shawnda Westly, and sought the counsel of Dana Williamson, a key adviser to then-Gov. Jerry Brown who is now running Bonta’s re-election campaign.

“It’s always more effective when you’re able to pool resources to help elect candidates” and “to champion issues in a coordinated way,” said Williamson, who stressed that she previously advised Smart Justice for free in an unofficial capacity.

In the following years, Smart Justice worked to bend the ears of lawmakers in Sacramento. Simons’ Heising-Simons foundation and Krieger’s Future Justice Fund channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to Smart Justice, and the women began meeting with individual lawmakers.

“It’s really hard to move beyond the fear-based headlines and to really talk about what happens to everyday people in the courthouse, in the jailhouse, and the police stations, and they are able to help translate that for folks who don’t know,” said state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles). “The [district attorneys] and law enforcement come in and say what they want, but they’re also speaking from their own lens.”

Legislators spoke to a growing willingness in Sacramento to defy law enforcement. Part of that is a desire to be on the right side of evolving public opinion. But part of it is a blunt calculation about political risk.

When police unions opposed Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), the progressive chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Smart Justice spent $100,000 to successfully defend him. Irwin chaired a committee backing then-state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), one of Sacramento’s leading reformers, when Mitchell successfully ran for Los Angeles County supervisor, defeating a fellow Democrat who had drawn the support of police unions.

“It helped me to be able to say to [lawmakers] ‘this is your opportunity to be able to step up and do the right thing and you don’t necessarily have the excuse that you won’t be able to defend yourself after tough votes,’” Mitchell said in an interview. “From my perspective we had moved into the big leagues.”

Law enforcement advocates agreed that power dynamics in Sacramento have markedly shifted, but they argue that progressive reformers and lawmakers have overreached with proposals to ease sentencing and reduce incarceration.

California District Attorneys Association lobbyist Larry Morse pointed to the American Civil Liberties Union sitting atop the list of lobbying expenditures in 2019 as evidence of “the dirty little secret” of pro-reform money “inundating the Legislature.”

“This is far and away the most hostile environment for law enforcement in a generation,” Morse said, adding that in previous decades “things went too far and there were excesses in terms of policies and everything, but that pendulum has swung back the other direction and then some.”

“We frankly get very tired of being characterized as troglodytes because we don’t embrace the scale and scope of what is being pushed as criminal justice reform in this Legislature,” Morse added. “It’s a very lonely task these days to be an advocate for public…

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