At the time of the 2016 election, it would have been impossible to predict the amount of damage that the Trump administration was going to inflict in just a few months. Despite then-candidate Trump’s transparent ignorance promising ignorance-based policymaking, his actions in office are still alarming. Most alarming, however, is his administration’s unabashed dedication to preying on the weakest in society. Many of their actions are unambiguously harmful to marginalized groups—the discontinuation of DACA, the travel ban, moves to defund Planned Parenthood— the list seems endless.
Many of us have been waiting impatiently to show our representatives that the American people don’t stand for the persecution of the vulnerable. The 2018 election cycle is our chance to hold politicians accountable for their complicity in irresponsible, and even malicious, policymaking.
While the federal government has been dominating public discourse during the past few months, it’s important not to neglect the impact of local policy. Having strong local leadership can make a palpable difference in our day-to-day lives. During a midterm election, it is especially important to vote because of historically low turnout rates during non-presidential years.
Specifically, a chance for change comes from the race for district attorney, which will arguably have the most direct impact on San Diego policy. District attorneys in the United States are an integral part of the criminal justice system. Essentially, they are responsible for choosing which cases to prosecute and what charges to bring against the accused. This role comes with an incredible amount of autonomy, known formally as prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutorial discretion is hallmark component of the American justice system; it allows for leniency and flexibility within the law. For example, if a minor is arrested and charged with a drug offense, the district attorney’s office may allow them to avoid jail time by submitting to weekly drug tests instead. Therefore, prosecuting attorneys can create policy by choosing how to enforce the law, and to what extent.
In San Diego County, Genevieve Jones-Wright is currently running for district attorney, against the interim Republican in office, Summer Stephan. With the federal government’s recent actions, I believe that protecting the most vulnerable members of our community should be a priority. Electing Jones-Wright would ensure at least one powerful ally for the underrepresented and disadvantaged.
Her intended actions would provide at least a partial remedy to the destructive effects of recent policy changes, which directly impact already-vulnerable students nationwide, including at UC San Diego. For example, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently announced that the Department of Education was reversing Obama-era policy, which was concerned with university investigations of sexual violence. The new policy raises the standard of proof required to punish a student over sexual assault allegations, favoring the accused over survivors. Civil rights groups argue that this decreases the likelihood of victims reporting sexual violence, and that a decline in reports has already been observed.
While UCSD and the UC system have affirmed their commitment to previous standards, this precedent set by the federal government is disturbing. It is indicative of the Trump administration’s apathetic approach towards justice for assault victims. That approach, whether realized in policy or expressed in rhetoric, has nationwide consequences, making survivors feel invalidated and emboldening transgressors. While the DA’s office cannot undo the damage of federal policy, it plays a large role in a city’s culture of justice, which can be changed to help empower survivors.
As of now, there are thousands of rape kits that have never been tested by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office. This has long been an unfortunate reality, but it has continued under Stephan’s leadership, who claimed that a lack of resources has caused the backlog. She argued that rape kits need to be tested based on the priority of the case, and that there would be “a potential negative” to testing all of them, implying that the results may falsely incriminate innocent people. Yet, following the news of Jones-Wright’s candidacy and her hardline stance that all rape kits should be tested, Stephan reversed her position and announced that the DA’s office would be allocating $1 million to test rape kits in an out-of-state laboratory.
Stephan’s display of negligence and apathy in the absence of campaign pressure is unacceptable to me. Only three percent of rapists will ever spend a day in prison. Nearly two-thirds of all rapes go unreported, largely because of such attitudes towards victims—insinuating that they are making false accusations, or implying that their assault is not enough of a priority to be investigated. Stephan is reinforcing such beliefs, making it less likely that survivors will seek the justice that they deserve.
College women are at an especially high risk of experiencing sexual violence, which is why students everywhere, including at UCSD, should advocate for better support of survivors.
Electing Jones-Wright would be a first step. According to her campaign representatives, she adamantly believes and has always insisted that all rape kits should be tested. Not only would she prioritize allocating funds for the task in the $150 million budget of the district attorney’s office, she also plans on applying for federal grant programs. For example, funding was available under the Obama administration for the very purpose of reducing rape kit backlogs. The San Diego County District Attorney’s office never applied for this grant, even with Stephan as interim DA.
Jones-Wright understandably believes that this is unacceptable. She emphasizes the need to support survivors and treat them with dignity, something that is lacking in the system as of now. If nothing else, this change will combat the cultural effects of federal policies that greet victims with skepticism and excessive scrutiny. By electing Jones-Wright, we are telling survivors: we hear you, and we believe you.
Similarly, the attempted discontinuation of DACA and Trump’s hateful anti-immigration rhetoric has caused fear among undocumented students, despite UCSD’s general support of DACA. Undocumented community members on campus may feel especially vulnerable due to its proximity to the border, which is a heavy burden for anyone to bear, but especially so for students. While local police and the district attorney are not involved in enforcement of immigration policy, many undocumented immigrants feel uncomfortable seeking criminal justice, in fear of police contact with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which could lead to deportation or other consequences. Their fears are not unfounded. There are reports of police calling ICE on victims that report crime, and recent surveys show that some victims are afraid to press charges and testify because ICE has been making arrests in courthouses.
San Diego County covers the length of the border between California and Mexico, meaning that there are wide implications for the DA’s office’s choices. The DA can work with police to create policy that will have a meaningful, positive impact on community law enforcement relations. For example, in Houston, officers are discouraged from inquiring about immigration status, to help prevent distress during police encounters.
Jones-Wright emphasizes inclusivity in her vision for San Diego. As she notes, the district attorney’s office is not responsible for immigration policy. Prosecutors and the police have a duty to prioritize seeking justice above all else, which requires making all victims feel safe and heard. Not only does Jones-Wright prioritize rebuilding the relationship between immigrants and police, she also recognizes the importance of discouraging racial profiling and reducing the use of brutality by authorities. San Diego is a diverse community, and picking on certain members because of their immigration status or background is unacceptable to her, as it is to many UCSD students. As tensions remain between undocumented students and authorities, xenophobia fueled by Trumpian rhetoric only grows. Therefore, it is especially important to ensure that undocumented students can depend on police and the criminal justice system, if only to reduce a minimum amount of insecurity associated with being undocumented at UCSD.
I can’t help but feel anger and disappointment when I think about the ways our federal government has turned its back to the Americans who need it most. I don’t need to travel far to see the effects—my classmates are the ones who feel less comfortable in their own skin, more vulnerable. At a time like this, we need leaders who champion such people, who respect them. Genevieve Jones-Wright is one of those leaders, and in a position like the district attorney’s, she can help implement the inclusive vision we see for the United States, starting right here in San Diego.
Hadia Ahsan is a Student and Volunteer Intern for the Jones-Wright Campaign. The positions stated here do not necessarily represent the opinions of The Triton, any of its members, or any of its affiliates. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.