When Pamela Price takes office next month, she is expected to usher in an era of change and reform in Alameda County, where retiring district attorney Nancy O’Malley held the post for 13 years.
The election was historic even before a winner emerged, as both candidates were African American, marking the first time the county would elect a Black district attorney.
Price won roughly 53% of the vote, getting about 27,000 more votes than Chief Assistant DA Terry Wiley.
“We all came together to win this race,” Price said. “We ran a grassroots, corporate-free campaign. We are living with a criminal justice system from the 1940s. We have to reclaim this office. When we get there, we’re going to have to do more work to clean it up and serve the community.”
A civil rights attorney and political activist, Price ran on a 10-point platform that included initiatives such as holding police accountable for their actions, not charging youths as adults, creating more metrics and evaluations to hold prosecutors accountable, and not seeking the death penalty. She ran as a progressive who would reform the system, while Wiley represented a continuation of O’Malley’s tough-on-crime approach.
“This election is a clear indictment of the way ‘justice’ has been administered in Alameda County, and everyone who is part of the status quo should take note,” said Brendon Woods, the county’s chief public defender. “Voters have decided it’s time to try something different.”
Woods and his team say that they intend to partner with Price to dismantle systemic racism in the legal system, end mass incarceration, and the over-policing of Black and brown communities. They look to Price to create alternatives to incarceration and increase diversion programs, as she promised throughout her campaign.
“Traditional prosecution and policing have not made us safer, nor have they served as a deterrent to crime in our county,” Woods said. “We must remember this moment, be patient and give progressive change a chance.”
As the county’s top prosecutor, Price will oversee an office of hundreds of attorneys, determine what charges, if any, to bring against an individual following an arrest, and set policies that influence the criminal legal system.
“She’s a woman with a plan,” said Paola Laverde, who volunteered on Price’s campaign. “She was a daring woman. She stood up to challenge the status quo—the status quo is afraid of a strong Black woman.”
Price enters office at a time when Oakland is experiencing upticks in certain types of violent crime. Reported homicides were at 111 as of Dec. 4, compared to the city’s three-year average of 109. The number of robberies and burglaries in the city has also risen in 2022, by 4% and 13% respectively, compared to the three-year averages.
While most Oakland precincts favored Price, county election data shows most of Wiley’s support in Oakland came in the more affluent Oakland hills.
According to county election data, 56.6% of voters in most precincts of the Oakland hills voted for Wiley, while 43.4% voted for Price.
Darlene Flynn, executive director of Oakland’s Race & Equity department, said this might reflect people’s different perceptions of public safety.
“If you are white in this county and if you’re living in a community like the Oakland hills, you are safe,” she said.
People in the Oakland hills may perceive that the system is working for them, Flynn said. In neighborhoods where more people of color live, that perception may be different, Flynn added, because people of color, especially Black people, have not always felt protected or safe.
According to the U.S. Census, 34.4% of Oakland’s population is white, 27% is Hispanic or Latino, 22.7% is Black, and 15.8% is Asian.
Dhaifallah Mo, who lives in Oakland and is a member of the Yemeni American Association, voted for Price because he said she understands what it means to be a minority.
“In the Yemeni American community, our voice is not heard,” Mo said. “I invited Pam one time to a Muslim holiday party and she showed up and met my community. It felt like she listened to us.”
Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, which supports the transformation of the criminal legal system, said Price’s win indicates that communities are ready for a different approach to safety.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we have not gotten the safety results we would hope to see from an approach of excessive punitiveness,” DeBerry said. “So that question must be for all of us – what can we do better?”
Flynn said that Price’s win is part of a national movement, where people are looking at all parts of the criminal justice system, not just policing.
“This is part of people trying to figure out exactly what creates a fair and just society that also protects the life and wellbeing of residents,” she said. “It’s one of the pieces.”
Price’s election comes five months after voters in neighboring San Francisco recalled Chesa Boudin, a leader in the progressive movement who was ousted 2 ½ years into his first term.
Jonathan Baum, an adjunct law professor at UC Berkeley, said he thinks Price will bring a big change to the criminal legal system.
“The elected DA plays a huge role in terms of setting the tone for prosecutors all across Alameda County,” he said. “So every charging decision that’s made, she can potentially influence how those decisions are made.”
Jonathan Simon, the Lance Robbins professor of criminal justice law at UC Berkeley, said some of Price’s ideas will be harder to accomplish than others, namely her goal to end mass incarceration.
Given the high levels of incarceration in the state, the question is, what to put in place of the punishment, he said.
Price has mentioned that as part of her platform, she wants to work toward seeking alternatives to incarceration such as by focusing on mental health.
DAs can’t determine where and how much investments toward social services and mental health care end up going, but they can become an actor in the county’s political process and work to impact where the investments are made that way, Simon added.
“There’s going to be a lot of challenges ahead for this DA, but I think the agenda that she’s laid out is one that could really resonate with the East Bay community as I think was proven in this election,” Simon said.
Price has hired a transition team of community leaders, attorneys and experts in criminal justice. She will serve as district attorney for the next four years and will be sworn in on Jan. 3.
Correction: the Alameda County District Attorney’s term is four years, not six.