Diana Becton Shakes Up the DA’s Office
As the first woman and first African American elected as Contra Costa’s district attorney, she’s wasting no time with programs to bring justice for all.
Photo courtesy Diana Becton
When State Sen. Nancy Skinner announced that Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton was being honored as the 2019 “Woman of the Year” for the 9th California Senate District, she described Becton’s career as “extraordinary.” Far from an exaggeration, the word is entirely appropriate for the woman born in East Oakland who went on to become an attorney, a judge, and as of June 2018, the first woman and first African American elected as Contra Costa’s district attorney since the office was established in 1850.
Sitting in her Martinez headquarters, Becton described what it was like growing up during the week in a working-class neighborhood in Oakland (“the city”) and on weekends at her grandparents’ home in the Russell City area of Hayward (“the country”). “My grandparents left Louisiana to get away from Jim Crow, but they [re-created rural] Louisiana at their house. They basically lived off the land. My grandma even kept bees for honey,” Becton said.
As a young girl, she absorbed the lessons of the lunch counter sit-ins and Ruby Bridges’ desegregation of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. “Collectively, these experiences helped shape my drive to be involved in the law,” Becton recounted. The Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, and the leadership of Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., also inspired her. Smith’s memoir, On the Jericho Road, “told us we needed to get out of our ‘lazy rocking chairs of religion’ and actively work to better our community,” she said. Becton is still considered a “daughter” of Allen Temple Baptist, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
She also retains ties with her high school, Castlemont, where she was a founding member of the alumni association, and helps provide scholarships for students.
Her dreams of being involved in the law began to become reality when she graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law. She went on to serve for 22 years as a judge in Contra Costa County, where she was eventually elected as presiding judge. In September 2017, she was appointed Contra Costa County’s interim district attorney, replacing Mark Peterson, who resigned after pleading no contest to a felony perjury charge. And then, after a hard-fought campaign, she was elected to office in 2018 for a four-year term, heading a staff of 200.
Retired BART Deputy Chief of Police Jan Glenn-Davis first crossed paths with Becton more than 15 years ago, when they both volunteered for the “Know Your Rights” program, which helps educate youth of color on what to do if stopped by police. “She is absolutely brilliant,” said Glenn-Davis, “but what really stands out about her is how down-to-earth she is.” Add to that her ability to think strategically, and you have a person who “doesn’t play checkers. She plays chess,” Glenn-Davis said.
In just the few months since her election, Becton has launched a number of news-making initiatives. One close to her heart is the “restorative justice” program, which will allow young people arrested for some crimes, such as robbery, burglary, or assault, to be referred by prosecutors to the RYSE Youth Center in Richmond. There, a team, including family members or guardians and the crime victims, as well as professional counselors, will work together to create a path for the offender to make amends, and, ideally, change his or her life into a positive direction. “Contra Costa County has never had a formal diversion program for youth,” said Becton. “If we are ever going to turn the tide, it must start with young people.” She pointed to the success of Alameda County’s restorative justice program, which has been in place for six years. In the program’s first year in Contra Costa, about 25 Richmond youth will be accepted, and with more funding expected, the program will begin to roll out countywide.
Another newsworthy initiative is the “conviction integrity unit,” supervised by Assistant District Attorney Brian Feinberg, which will review applications from incarcerated individuals who feel they have been wrongly convicted. “I wanted to join the 33 other DA offices nationwide who have taken this step to investigate any possible misconduct or impropriety. The public is demanding this,” said Becton. “It is our responsibility to be accountable and transparent.” Other new units include one dedicated to cold cases and unsolved homicides, and one focusing on human trafficking, including disrupting the pipeline of exploited girls and women.
Becton’s office will be one of five in California working with the nonprofit Code for America to put data together that will eventually be used to dismiss thousands of misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession, and reduce some felonies to misdemeanors.
The “Neighborhood Courts” program, modeled on successful ones in San Francisco and San Diego, will recruit retired lawyers and judges, among other community members, to divert low-level offenses, such as painting graffiti, from the criminal justice courts. Again, Becton said, the idea is based on restorative justice, which includes the answers to: “Who was harmed, and what is the appropriate remedy?” Becton said. Her office plans to start these “courts” in east, central and west Contra Costa County.
Another 12-week “Community Academy” is being planned after the first one attracted a large number of applicants, who were offered inside looks at how the DA’s office functions. (Those interested in applying for the next academy can contact Becton’s office at DA-CommunityAcademy@contracostada.org.)
All of these new programs tally with Becton’s longstanding commitment to being “morally and ethically top-notch,” said Glenn-Davis. “She is not motivated by what is politically favored at the time, but by what is right for the people she serves.”
This was echoed by Becton when asked what she hopes the legacy of her time in office will be. She listed helping to reduce mass incarceration, diverting youth before they become entangled in the system, and giving people a second chance. In 2015, while still a judge, she hosted a “Clean Slate Day,” at a Richmond church. “By 6 a.m., there was a long line of people waiting to come in,” she said. “We resolved a thousand cases that day.”
Overall, her goal is to give the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office an ongoing “Clean Slate Day.”