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Editorial: O.C. DA Todd Spitzer is suddenly talking a good game on racial justice. Judge him by his actions

Surrounded by social distancing signs on seats, Todd Spitzer sits in the back row of a room.
Surrounded by social distancing signs, Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer prepares to address county supervisors during a discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
(Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer can be a hard guy to figure. He built his career on “tough-on-crime” rhetoric, including disparaging and even fear-mongering remarks about the progressive prosecutor movement that is working to diminish excessive sentencing and racial inequity in the justice system. But now he has come out with a statement of principles in which he acknowledges the corrosive effect of those injustices.

“We as a society have engaged in systemic mass incarceration,” Spitzer said in his Feb. 10 statement. “As a prosecutor, I will stop it. We as a society have prosecuted people of color differently. As a prosecutor, I will stop it.”

The response from his conservative allies in law enforcement and criminal prosecution has been one of quiet consternation. Is he one of us, they ask, or isn’t he?

Progressive criminal justice reformers, meanwhile, have met his announcement with contempt, pointing to inconsistencies between his statements and his actions — and sometimes just between his statements. A day before publishing his guiding precepts, for example, he took to the radio to simultaneously promote them and to blast his Los Angeles County counterpart, George Gascón, for fleshing out the very same principles with directives on charging and sentencing.

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Yet Spitzer joined the Prosecutors Alliance of California, an organization founded by Gascón and a handful of other prosecutors expressly to counter the political clout and regressive policies of the California District Attorneys Assn. Spitzer sticks out in the progressive group a little like a sore thumb. He remains a member of CDAA (Gascón announced his resignation from CDAA earlier this week).

So is the Orange County DA trying to have it both ways? Is he casting about for a workable political philosophy in a traditionally Republican county but in an era of racial reckoning? Is he preparing for a reelection campaign next year against a more left-leaning challenger?

Perhaps he is doing all those things. But criminal justice reformers should suppress their urge to chortle and instead welcome Spitzer’s statement of principles and his engagement in the discussion on over-incarceration. A movement built on belief in redemption and second chances shouldn’t be so quick to shut him down. And, besides, it should remember that criminal justice reform has deep roots in conservatism, such as in groups like Right on Crime that called for fewer prosecutions and reduced reliance on jail and prison at a time when most liberal prosecutors were doubling down on longer sentences, tough bail and the death penalty.

If Spitzer’s goal is to provide a conservative counterpoint to the progressive prosecutor movement, based on a sincere and enlightened quest to eliminate racism and excessive (and costly) imprisonment, and if he wants to engage in a principled policy debate, bring it on. He, Gascón and others should be judged not just by their words but by their actions and their effect on the accused, the victimized and indeed all of us.


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