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Soros-backed challengers largely fail to unseat California prosecutors

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Three California county district attorneys will keep their seats despite a well-financed national effort to elect reform-minded candidates sympathetic to reducing mass incarceration and prosecuting shootings by police.

A fourth candidate backed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros and other liberal activists may face a November runoff election.

Diana Becton, who was appointed Contra Costa County's first woman and first African-American district attorney last year, was just shy of the majority of votes in Tuesday's election that she needed to retain the office outright.

The next results from 80,000 uncounted ballots are expected Friday night. Career prosecutor Paul Graves trailed her by about 8 percentage points or fewer than 8,000 votes among nearly 104,000 counted.

Soros contributed at least $1.5 million through the California Justice & Public Safety Political Action Committee to support Becton and challengers seeking to oust sitting prosecutors in Alameda, Sacramento and San Diego counties. Several of the challengers identify as Democrats, though the races officially are non-partisan.

Whitney Tymas, treasurer of the Soros-funded political action committee in California and elsewhere, did not return repeated telephone messages.

Soros previously has spent tens of millions of dollars to liberalize drug policies and criminal penalties.

David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford University professor and former federal prosecutor, said the challengers faced uphill battles against moderate incumbents: Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley; Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert; and interim San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.

"We're not talking about district attorneys who are cut from a Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, tough-on-crime cloth," he said. "These results can't be seen as and shouldn't be seen as a repudiation of criminal justice reform. In each case the victor was a moderate reformer and was victorious over a more aggressive or more radical reformer."

The surviving district attorneys were able to tag their opponents as being funded by out-of-state interests, said Amador County District Attorney Todd Riebe, president of the California District Attorneys Association.

"It's a Soros agenda, and it's a national agenda for criminal justice reform and I think it was soundly rejected even when it was articulated virtually in lock step by the candidates," he said.

Some challengers made promises that Riebe said would violate prosecutors' oath to follow the law, like never seeking the death penalty, never trying juveniles as adults and never seeking extended prison sentences even for egregious crimes.

Moreover, "when it's been suggested by some of the challengers that all we think about is maximum punishment, that's just not true," he said.

He said the state's prosecutors are virtually unanimous in supporting changes to what he called a "broken" cash bail system that often detains poor suspects awaiting trial; to diverting and seeking treatment for mentally ill offenders; and to other diversion and rehabilitation programs where appropriate.

Many support the principle of a legislative proposal that would give county district attorneys the option of asking the state attorney general to investigate officer-involved shootings, he said, particularly if it leaves DAs the ultimate discretion whether to file charges based on the attorney general's findings.

"The lesson is there are criminal justice reforms that can and must occur, and we need to be at the table," Riebe said.

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