SF District Attorney candidates answer questions from formerly incarcerated students at SF State forum before November election

MJ Johnson

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Tears filled Elisabeth Ocampo’s eyes and her voice began to quiver, but she persisted in her question to three seasoned lawyers currently running for district attorney in San Francisco. 

Ocampo, a formerly incarcerated undergraduate student at SF State, rushed to the microphone to voice her opposition to district attorney hopeful Nancy Tung, who is in favor of sentencing young people to prison terms longer than 20 years. Ocampo teared up as she spoke of her childhood friend who was sentenced to life in prison at 16. 

“It’s personal, and I’ll only bite my tongue for so long,” Ocampo said. 

Three district attorney candidates convened in Cesar Chavez student center Sept. 24 for a discussion forum hosted by Project Rebound and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Formerly incarcerated students with Project Rebound, a special admissions program at SF State for people in and coming from the criminal justice system, led the discussion and posed questions to candidates that touched on topics of racism, police brutality, recidivism and mass incarceration. Project Rebound hosted the event as an opportunity for students and the community to learn more about the people running in the election, said Regional Director of Project Rebound Jason Bell. 

“They (Project Rebound students) have faced DAs, these are people who are vicious in the courts, who have prosecuted us to some degree and we feel like they’re our enemies,” said Bell, a formerly incarcerated individual. “So for us it was big to be in the same room.” 

The discussion forum was co-hosted by the ACLU as part of the “Meet Your DA” campaign in California, which is designed to raise awareness about the powerful role district attorneys play in the state’s 58 counties. The district attorney is not only the chief prosecutor but also impacts the criminal justice system by introducing propositions and reform measures. 

Jose Cuella, professor of Latino/Latina Studies at SF State, challenges SF District Attorney candidates to call out implicit and explicit racism as systemic white supremacy Sept. 24 (Photo by MJ Johnson / Golden Gate Xpress)

“We think the voices of formerly incarcerated people should be the leading voice in the fight for criminal justice,” said Yoel Haile, criminal justice project manager at ACLU-Northern California. “The forum is a way to directly have a conversation with the people who are going to be making these decisions after November.” 

Although all four candidates running for district attorney were invited by Project Rebound to participate in the discussion, only three showed up to take questions from students and community members. SF Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, California Deputy Attorney General Leif Dautch and SF Deputy District Attorney Nancy Tung all commented on the notable absence of their fellow contender SF Police Commissioner President Suzy Loftus. The three candidates each had opportunities to share their positions on hot-button issues for the upcoming election. 

“We need to stop focusing on convictions. We need to stop focusing on life sentences,” said Boudin, a candidate whose parents were both sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in a bank robbery when Boudin was 14 months old. “We need to start focusing on prevention and healing. We need to recognize the public health crisis in our streets. We need to recognize that we are safer when we invest in education rather than incarceration.”

Ocampo challenged the candidates on their positions on gang enhancement, additional time on prison sentences for those deemed to be gang affiliated. She shared from her history when at 13 years old, she was entered into the CalGang database, a system used by law enforcement in California to identify and track alleged gang members. 

“What kept me in the system with numerous violations was how law enforcement perceived me, because of my gang involvement, because of being poor,” said Ocampo, a mother of two and business management major who will graduate in the spring. “It was all those flaws within the system that kept me in the system. The system let me down in a lot of ways.”

The candidates will go head to head on Nov. 5 under San Francisco’s new voting system that will expand ranked-choice voting from three to 10 choices, part of the city’s push toward digital voting. This year’s district attorney race is the first open-seat race without an incumbent in San Francisco since 1909. 

“It’s good to be educated on topics that are important to us like who to vote for,” said Lesly Altamirano, a criminal justice major who just turned 18 and will be voting in her first election. “I get to learn something I didn’t know, like about the new voting system.”