A political YOLO: Public defender in Yolo County runs for district attorney despite the odds

Dean Johansson charges that incumbent’s reign has fostered a school-to-prison pipeline

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the February 1, 2018, issue.

After another candidate dropped out of the race to unseat Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, veteran defense attorney Dean Johansson started making calls. He’s now Reisig’s main opponent.

Reisig has run unopposed since 2006. Johansson has been a public defender in the same county since 2007. The 56-year-old challenger launched his campaign against Reisig January 25 outside the superior courthouse in Woodland, claiming Yolo has some of the highest rates in California for county incarceration, jury trials and treating juvenile offenders as adults.

“Out of 58 counties, Yolo is one of the top six counties for per-capita prison population,” Johansson told reporters. “It is No.1 for jury trials. This is the county of incarceration, and countless children and families pay the price.”

Johansson is also a board member of the Davis chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has already made him a public voice for police accountability, not to mention a watchdog on whether local prosecutors are “creating crime,” he contended.

Francesca Wright, a Davis resident, decided to support Johansson after he supported an ordinance to publicize police surveillance practices in an annual report.

“It became really clear that our issue of overzealous policing will only be addressed if we use prosecutorial discretion in a way that respects all people, and not one-sided portrayals of evidence and information,” said Wright, a member of People Power of Davis, a volunteer-run grassroots organization focused on resisting the Trump administration.

Wright said the Davis City Council will be taking up the surveillance ordinance next month.

This week, Johansson told SN&R that he’d been supporting Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Larry Eichele against Reisig—until Eichele pulled out of the race. “I went around and pled, ‘Somebody, please, step up,’” Johansson recalled. “I realized, I can’t ask others to do something I wouldn’t do.”

Johansson plans to make overzealous gang validations and the school-to-prison pipeline central themes in his campaign.

From Johansson’s perspective, the “Picnic Day 5” case was an example of the over-prosecution of black and brown people he would avoid. In that case, five mostly-minority defendants said they had no idea they were fighting with undercover officers during a melee last spring in front of UC Davis. The DA’s office maintained the defendants knew or should have known they were dealing with officers.

Johansson acknowledged his campaign will be a “vertical climb.” He entered the race late and is behind on fundraising. But there is recent precedent for a public defender becoming the top prosecutor: Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia’s district attorney on a reformist platform this past November. Johansson, who was a prosecutor in Tulare County before coming to Davis, is adamant his challenge is real.

“It’s not easy, but it’s do or die,” he stressed. “I got to the point where I’m tired of the disparity. It’s too great. I decided, either I become DA or I leave the county.”