The contentious race for the Santa Clara County district attorney's seat is pitting a trailblazing incumbent against a seasoned public defender and a former deputy district attorney who has sued the DA's office.
Current DA Jeff Rosen has held the office for three terms and is seeking another on a platform of realistic reform that works. Public Defender Sajid Khan has waged a vigorous campaign to unseat him, running on a platform that would more deeply reform the DA's office with fewer prosecutions and more diversion programs to address the root causes of crime. Daniel Chung is campaigning on a nuts-and-bolts reading of the role of the DA as a prosecutor and enforcer of the law — not a legislator or a social worker.
In the June 7 primary, voters will select the top two candidates to move on to the general election in the fall, unless one contender garners more than 50% of the votes and is thus declared the winner.
Here are the candidates' views on how best to prosecute criminals, work with defendants, aid victims and reform the Office of the District Attorney.
Former Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Daniel Chung, 33, wants the District Attorney's Office to get back to the basics: enforce laws and prosecute serious, violent and repeat offenders.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Milpitas, he's a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School.
He first prosecuted felony gun crimes in New York's Bronx County. In 2018, he joined the Santa Clara County DA's violent felonies unit and prosecuted domestic violence cases.
Chung is notable for the fractious relationship he's had with incumbent District Attorney Jeff Rosen. Chung claims to have been fired for speaking out in an op-ed against the DA's policies, and he's suing the office for which he once worked. But insiders at the DA's office have claimed that that's not why he was terminated, but they won't speak openly about the alleged reasons, citing employee confidentiality.
His war chest: According to his state campaign contribution filing, Chung has raised $9,195 in 2022 to date for his election campaign. He has $13,761 in expenditures with an overall cash balance of $5,988 after all monies since the beginning of his campaign.
Chung takes a more traditional view of the district attorney's role than his competitors.
"Prosecutors should fight for public safety by prosecuting crimes. We are not social workers or legislators. Our primary responsibility is to enforce laws," he wrote on his campaign webpage.
As DA, he would prioritize prosecuting serious, violent and repeat offenders and he would zealously prosecute gun, retail and hate crimes, three areas that have recently grown problematic. He would support alternatives to imprisonment and diversion programs for first-time offenders of lower-level crimes.
Chung said during an interview last December that he wants to build continuity into the DA's office and prevent "revolving door" policies. He claims the DA maintains policies that do a disservice to crime victims and defendants and runs an office that is rife with inefficiencies, causing taxpayers too much money.
If elected, he would seek to transform the DA's office by streamlining the way prosecutions are handled. The current system shortchanges the victims of crimes and causes unnecessary and expensive delays, he said.
Santa Clara County has a "hot potato" prosecution process, Chung said: A case can pass through the hands of as many as seven deputy district attorneys by the time it resolves. At each phase — from arraignment to preliminary hearing and onward — a new prosecutor often steps in.
"That's just outrageous. It's a system where no one really takes ownership. It's assembly-line prosecution where people throw it along from one to the other," he said.
Along the way, evidence might not be gathered properly or evidence is lost; miscommunications harm the case, he said. The earliest phases of a case are the most critical. If the prosecution hasn't put in the effort to build the case, it "can fall apart in an embarrassing fashion in court," he said.
Chung instead would manage cases "vertically," having the same prosecutor handle a case all the way through from the defendant's intake to the sentencing, which would maintain continuity and speed cases along.
The current policies regarding defendants are also burdensome. In weak cases, prosecutors are overcharging defendants in order to extract plea bargains. The use of special allegations and enhancements for crimes, which can add years to a sentence, should be used sparingly with the object of protecting public safety, he said.
"If we are trying to hold the defendant accountable, we need to do it in a fair way," he said.
The judicial system significantly shortchanges victims, Chung said, because of the prosecution of cases currently takes years.
Assigned seven or eight different prosecutors during the case, the victim is unduly burdened by having to repeatedly restate what happened. The whole process is a disservice to the victim and their family, the defendant — who should receive a speedy trial — and the taxpayers, who are ultimately footing the bill, he said.
Chung has seen plea deals that are suddenly reneged by prosecutors after a new deputy district attorney takes over a case. The new prosecutor needs to get up to speed, evidence gets lost and the deals are worse over time, he said.
"That's just wrong," he said.
"One of the things I dreaded was opening an old case that was five, six or seven years old. It had gone through generations of prosecutors who could not figure out how to move the case forward: Where's the evidence? It's not there anymore. Do we still have contact information for the witnesses?" he said.
His plan to have the same prosecutor handle a case from beginning to end would help resolve cases faster, he said. He would also strengthen services offered to victims to help them heal.
Chung said also he would urge prosecutors to engage in more community outreach, so that the attorneys understand public concerns.
As DA, Chung would focus on nuts-and-bolts efficiencies that aim at improving the outcomes of cases and public safety. He favors upgrading policies, such as revising the sexual assault manual, and obtaining new software that allows prosecutors to better follow their cases, he said.
He would ensure prosecutors are well-trained so that evidence is properly collected and that cases are trial-ready. Efficiency would reduce costs of prosecutions while freeing up funding for programs that address the root causes of crime.
He would also increase communication with the staff and improve the office's transparency.
"Nobody should be punished for choosing to express counter opinions," he said.
When Santa Clara County public defender Sajid Khan thinks about the judicial system, he thinks big — about the culture of law enforcement and of underlying issues that contribute to people becoming offenders.
Khan, 39, is the proud son of Muslim immigrants who raised him and his siblings in Milpitas and San Jose. He graduated from San Jose High School, University of California, Berkeley, and UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He is now raising his two young sons in the South Bay.
During an interview, Khan never used the word "crimes" but instead referred to behavior that puts someone before a judge as "harms." It's part of his effort to change the justice system culture to one that no longer villainizes, but seeks to address underlying issues that led to prosecution while holding people accountable.
"For the last nearly 14 years I've served our communities as a public defender. I've been in our jails. I've been in our courtrooms. I've been in our neighborhoods, and I have witnessed the harms of mass incarceration and police brutality, infliction of generational harm on communities of color, and failure to keep us sustainably and collectively safe. And it's for those reasons that I'm now running for district attorney because I'm committed to healing systemic racism, fighting mass incarceration, addressing root causes of harm in our communities, and fighting to build a justice system that ensures and protects the dignity and safety of all people," he said.
His war chest: According to his state campaign contribution filing last week, Khan has raised $82,827.50 in 2022 to date. He has spent $105,830.42. His overall ending cash balance, however, is $118,585.92 for all contributions raised since he began his campaign.
A cornerstone of Khan's campaign has been the idea of making major shifts in how cases are prosecuted, and that starts with juveniles.
"I will end the practice of prosecuting children as adults. I personally have represented a child as young as 14 years old who was prosecuted and punished as an adult by our incumbent DA. And I was on the frontlines fighting for the enactment of SB 1391, which ended the practice of prosecuting 14 and 15 year olds as adults," he said.
The DA's Office has continued to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, a practice he would end "once and for all," if elected, he said.
Khan would also expand the use of mental health treatment and diversion programs rather than using an "incarceration-centric or punitive-centric response," he said.
"It's critical that we address the root causes of harm in our community to ensure that these harms don't happen in the first place. And if they do happen, that they don't happen again, and the way we do that is by utilizing mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, educational and vocational programs, trauma-informed care," he said.
He would also hold police accountable for their actions.
"We've had a DA who has never prosecuted a single San Jose police officer who has shot and or killed a fellow human being in our community. And I won't stand for that. I will prosecute police officers," he said. "I will prosecute cases where police officers engage in racial profiling and unconstitutional behavior."
Khan would change the DA's charging practices, which he asserts overcharges people with crimes.
"We will not coerce people into pleading guilty to charges or being convicted. We won't threaten people with additional punishment or additional penalties if they don't accept a plea offer," he said.
He would also fight against the use of cash bail, which has had a discriminatory impact on Black and Latino people, and, he said, has not made communities safer. He would also no longer prosecute three strikes and gang enhancements because they result disproportionately in excessive sentences for people of color.
Khan would also try to ensure defendants with mental health issues have direct access to individualized, meaningful mental health services throughout the system, from the Pretrial Services Office to the jails.
"There is no evidence that those policies have made our communities less safe," he said.
Khan would prosecute hate crimes, but he would also treat them as a public health issue that requires interventions and would seek to offer "restorative" services to survivors so their trauma is addressed, he said.
He would oppose compliance with federal immigration enforcement so that people who are undocumented or immigrants don't feel that they are at risk of deportation or their loved ones being deported if they report crimes, he said.
Khan would work with organizations such as Next Door Solutions to ensure that prosecutors are trained to handle domestic violence cases in ways that don't further traumatize affected families. He would also help victims get services regardless of whether their case is prosecuted, he said.
Khan supports establishing a DA's unit to resentence people who are currently in the prison system, especially minors who were prosecuted and punished as adults and who have likely become rehabilitated.
He would seek to lessen the sentences of the approximately 25 people who are on California's death row out of Santa Clara County, he said.
He also supports diversion programs for offenders who are parents or caregivers so that families stay together and so defendants can rehabilitate themselves.
"Oftentimes, convicting someone for conviction's sake results in people being criminalized; it results in people being destabilized and disenfranchised in our community, unable to get jobs, housing, access to vocational and educational programs," he said.
"I will work diligently to ensure that we promote pathways for people to get expungements and record clearances even for things like serious and violent crimes, where people have proven that they are not threats to public safety; that they have rehabilitated, and especially where prior convictions have been proven to inhibit people from gaining access to employment and vocational training and housing," he said.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, 54, has held the position since 2011. Calling himself a pragmatic progressive, he says he's made victims' services a priority as well as services for defendants of low-level crimes to reduce recidivism.
A Los Altos resident, Rosen graduated from University of California, Los Angeles and received his law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law. He and his wife, a Superior Court judge for the state of California, have two daughters.
As the DA, Rosen said, he's most proud of changing the culture of the DA's Office to one in which staff proactively look at what other prosecutors' offices are doing.
"I think that openness to innovation and change is a big cultural shift," he said, noting that he started a conviction-integrity unit to review old cases and make sure they convicted the right person.
He also formed multiple specialized units to address crimes such as possession of illegal guns and human trafficking. Rosen created the Crime Strategy Unit, which has helped law enforcement tackle crimes such as serial burglaries and robberies and the recent spate of smash-and-grab retail burglaries. Another new unit, Major Crime and Drug Trafficking, targets the fentanyl trade and organized crime.
He has sent prosecutors into the community with nonprofit organizations to help reduce youth crime, created family justice centers to address domestic violence and launched a victims' services unit.
His war chest: According to his state campaign contribution filing on April 28, Rosen has raised $46,896 in 2022 to date. He has spent $155,402. He has $445,258, however, as his current cash balance, which includes monies raised prior to 2022 for his campaign.
Rosen has prosecuted law enforcement officers, including three corrections officers who beat a mentally ill jail inmate to death. He also referred a misconduct case involving current Sheriff Laurie Smith to an outside jurisdiction to avoid a conflict of interest. His office is also prosecuting two deputies on corruption charges, including Smith's former second in command.
His office was recently awarded a federal grant — one of only nine in the nation — to expand the DA's Human Trafficking Task Force. In the next four years, he said, he would push to make a serious dent in human trafficking.
Likewise, he would focus more on gun violence and keeping guns out of the hands of felons and individuals with domestic violence restraining orders.
Rosen defended his office's record on prosecuting people of color. Each year the office produces the demographics on individuals who were arrested and prosecuted. It does show that Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately prosecuted, he said, but it also shows that the race of the victims of the crimes are also disproportionately Black and Latino. The larger problem has been a lack of education and resources that would reduce crime in communities of color, he said.
Rosen has made efforts, however, to more fairly keep Black and Latino defendants out of the system in the first place. His office examined whether prosecutors were charging cases differently based on the race of the victim, the defendant or the witness. They didn't find bias, but they made a stunning discovery: 15% of the cases they were filing were for small amounts of drug possession and were disproportionately against Blacks and Latinos.
Now the DA's Office refers many of those cases to county diversion programs rather than put families and defendants through the trial process, which usually resulted in the judge sending the defendant to a drug-treatment program anyway. The DA's Office only files charges after a person has had three drug arrests in a year, he said.
"It turned out that in 90% of these cases, the only thing that person had done in a year was to have been high or had a small amount of drugs and had committed no other crimes.
"To the extent that we are still prosecuting drug cases, we're going after large scale dealers, multinational criminal organizations, major drug traffickers," he said.
Under his leadership the jail population has shrunk by half, he said, a move that's addressed racial inequity in the system. He has focused on incarceration for dangerous, violent repeat offenders but favored using alternatives to incarceration for people who are addicted to drugs, mentally ill or who commit relatively low-level offenses. Rosen seeks to find ways to reduce recidivism by getting at the root problems that cause people to commit crimes, he said.
"Jail is expensive. That's, like $70,000 to $80,000 a year in our county. And I would rather have more police officers. Every additional police officer that you add to a department ... pays for itself in the reduction of property crimes and violent crimes, and people feel safer when they see police officers, and that's a lot more cost effective than jails," he said.
Rosen supports ending cash bail.
"The question to ask is, is this person too dangerous to release, too much of a flight risk to release? If the answer is 'yes,' then they should just be held in custody, period. If the answer is no ... then they should be out in jail and supervised.
"Bail is the wrong question," he said. "Bail takes money — primarily a lot of money, millions and millions of dollars a year — out of working class communities of color. If we got rid of bail, the money would stay in those communities," he said.
Regarding charges of overzealous prosecution, he said: "We need to work with the criminal defense lawyers and public defenders and make sure that we're prosecuting people in the most fair and ethical way. And that's a continuous challenge to do that well."
Rosen has increased prosecutions of hate crimes and raised awareness, particularly regarding hate crimes and incidents against Asian Americans. In March 2020, the office created a public service announcement broadcast on television encouraging victims to report hate crimes.
The PSA appears to have been successful.
"We filed more hate crimes in the last two years than we filed in any years before that. We got additional reports," he said.
In the next four years, he wants to create a phone app for crime victims to make it easier for them to track their cases.
Rosen also restructured the criminalist lab after working with county Supervisor Cindy Chavez to address and eliminate a backlog in processing rape kits.
Rosen is just now picking a supervisor for a new unit, Custody Alternatives and Mental Health Programs, to bring together all of the mental health and drug treatment courts. The program would assess defendants and create the best programs and outcomes for them, he said.
Rosen supports expungements of convictions after people have completed their sentences.
"I'm a big believer in rehabilitation and giving people a second chance," he said. "We've made it in some respects very hard for someone to get a job or go to college or get housing assistance after they leave jail or prison."
The DA's Office wrote its own computer program to expunge marijuana convictions since the drug is now legal. Previously, state, local and federal databases didn't have an easy way to truly expunge a conviction.
"There are thousands of people every year in our county, who once they successfully complete probation or parole and they've made restitution to the crime victim if there is one, they're entitled to have their record expunged, and now we can do it automatically and quickly," he said.