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As the criminal justice debate shifts among Democratic candidates and within American public opinion, old guard Democrats have become targets in the name of pushing reform. This plays out especially in the primary battle in California’s 16th Congressional District, where Rep. Jim Costa—chair of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition—has been challenged by Fresno Council member Esmeralda Soria.

Costa was a member of the California General Assembly in 1994 when the initial three strikes bill, also known as the Jones-Costa bill, was passed. At a time when three strikes laws were being implemented across the country and at a federal level, California’s stood out as one of the harshest applications that affects defendants as young as 16 and includes a long list of felony crimes that qualify as strikes. It’s one of the harshest criminal policies in the country that can send people to prison for life for nonviolent offenses.

California Democrat Rep. Jim Costa speaks during a news conference with a bipartisan group of House members outside the U.S. Capitol, May 20, 2014, in Washington, DC.

The law was implemented both legislatively and with voter support at a time when harsh criminal laws were politically popular. In today’s election climate, Democratic presidential candidates have proposed sweeping reforms to reverse the effects of mass incarceration, and even President Trump has supported reform to ease federal “three strikes” sentencing guidelines.

Costa’s legacy on criminal justice still affects Californians today. California’s prison population swelled after three strikes, so much so that in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to overhaul its overcrowded prisons. But adjusting to that ruling has led to an “explosion” of homicides in county jails.

In comes Soria, an immigrant daughter of farmworkers, a 37-year-old millennial and Fresno council president finishing her second term. Her campaign announcement was anticipated, and The Fresno Bee wrote that she may be the “most formidable challenge of Costa’s career.” She’s jumped into the race at a time when people of color are rising to challenge the political establishment in Fresno and beyond. The 67-year-old incumbent has only faced one Democratic challenger since he was first elected in 2004.

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July 12, 2019

Her campaign’s focus has been on health care and economic opportunity for working families, including expanding affordable housing—less so on criminal justice reform. When asked for a more detailed criminal justice reform plan, Soria said it’s early in the campaign, but shared some of her opinions on the issues at hand.

Soria said she supports the reforms to federal sentencing guidelines passed in the First Step Act, though did not go further on the reforms she would bring if she took office. Overall, she believes there are lessons to be learned from the effects of California’s punitive policies. “This is the district that is ground zero to three strikes legislation,” Soria said. “Other states need to look at things that haven’t worked in our system.”

Soria said she has not discussed the issue of violent incidents in county jails with Fresno County sheriffs because it’s not within her jurisdiction. “In my opinion, realignment has been successful, but what it has caused is that state and county systems face significant problems,” Soria said. At the city level, she said the action she has taken has been to fund more beds in the jail in reaction to a spike in auto thefts.

Soria said she opposes private prisons, which California just banned. “That should be fundamental,” Soria said. “Incarceration should not be a private business.”

Soria also said she supports California’s lead on abolishing cash bail, and shifting to treatment programs instead of mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Fresno is among the California cities with plans to expunge the records of people with marijuana convictions. “Prisons shouldn’t be the default for treating drug addiction,” Soria said. “We need to make sure millions in savings from prisons comes back to local communities, our counties and cities to fund drug treatment and mental health services.”

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....