Opinion: True Justice Reform Needs New Leadership in the District Attorney’s Office

Sajid Khan is a Santa Clara County district attorney candidate. He never managed an office of 600 employees. He is not a professional prosecutor. Olx Praca editorial board cites these facts as reasons to support three-term incumbent Jeff Rosen, implying that already managing the existing bureaucracy in the singular demonstrates the leadership qualities of a “strong manager.” What the editorial board overlooks is that our diverse Santa Clara County communities calling for justice reform are not asking for the status quo to be maintained—we are calling for change. During Rosen’s tenure, we saw prosecutors disproportionately charge and imprison people of color, send children to adult court, and let cops be above the law when they killed members of the community.

For these reasons, Khan’s not being a prosecutor is actually one of the strengths of his candidacy, not a weakness. He witnessed the harm of the current criminal justice system from the point of view of a public defender.

We reject the circular argument that only people who are already in charge are qualified managers. This rationale excludes the very innovation and diversity that define Silicon Valley at its best. Indeed, the current president himself lacked managerial experience when he was first elected over a decade ago. Leaders of color, including Sajid, display their qualifications in ways that are often less visible to the public than establishment leaders. And before we were elected, promoted, or prominently promoted, we discreetly ran the institutions available to us: community groups, educational groups, and religious groups. This experience teaches us to listen to different points of view, recognize untapped talent, and promote new ideas.

Leaders of color are redirecting institutions that have historically excluded and oppressed into ones that can rectify and reduce harm—this is what tangible and ambitious justice reform looks like. This is not a distant aspiration; it is a transformation that is happening now across the country.

Our nation is still proud of the appointment of a black woman to the Supreme Court by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. We celebrated her appointment to the nation’s highest court as a recognition that there is deep value, brilliance and hope to be found in the experiences of diverse communities. She was also a public defender.

We encourage voters to broaden the definition of “skilled leader” to include those who come up with ideas that are in line with our progressive community values, who may not have previously had the opportunity to implement them. As a public defender who has handled complex cases, Sajid knows every component of the criminal justice system – he just saw it from a different perspective, which is what is needed if we want real reform. Sajid’s priorities are preventing violent crime and property crime by investing in alternatives to imprisonment, dismantling the pipeline from school to prison, and countering police misconduct. These positions are informed because he understood the impact of outside decisions made by the DA’s office.

Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, and voters must feed the most compelling ideas, even if those ideas come from outside the existing power structure. Sajid is a qualified leader who will be the first person of color to be elected District Attorney since this office was established in 1850 to serve our community.

LaDoris H. Cordell is a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge and former Independent Auditor for the San Jose Police Department. She was the first African-American woman judge to serve on both the municipal and Supreme Courts of Northern California. Raj Jayadev is a human rights activist based in San Jose. Jamal Williams is one of the co-chairs of the Black Leadership kitchen cabinet in Silicon Valley.