Civil rights attorney and racial justice activist Pamela Price assumes office this month as the first Black district attorney serving Alameda County, California. She brings to the job another lesser-known first: Her experience as a former foster youth who was once incarcerated as a teenager.
Price, 66, has spent more than a half-century fighting injustice, from her high school days organizing sit-ins to successfully arguing a labor discrimination case before the United States Supreme Court in 2002 and her 2016 representation of a Richmond teenager who was sexually exploited by numerous Bay Area police officers.
The Yale University and UC Berkeley School of Law graduate also carries a history that few, if any, top prosecutors share: She is a self-described “survivor” of Ohio’s foster care and juvenile justice systems.
After entering the child welfare system at age 13, she was shuffled between foster homes, group homes and juvenile detention facilities before emancipating at 16. Price credits a trio of three women who took her in and guided her to Yale, even after she had dropped out of high school.
“I had three great foster moms who just would not give up on me, and would challenge me every day to think about what I was doing,” she said in an interview with The Imprint last month. “If it had not been for them, I would not be here.”
Price enters office at a time when Oakland is experiencing a wave of violence that has seen homicides surge since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, murders topped 100 for the first time in a decade, and 2022 may have been even worse, according to preliminary numbers reported by the National Public Radio affiliate KQED.
She has pledged to adopt a host of progressive policies, like not charging youths as adults, holding police accountable for their actions and not prosecuting lower-level offenses. She also sees Oakland as a national leader in restorative justice and hopes to expand the use of programs that use the practice as an alternative to jail for many more youth and young adults.
Bay Area justice reformers and the prison abolitionist, activist and scholar Angela Davis have celebrated Price’s victory. But there are high expectations for quick action. Earlier this week a coalition of reform groups, issued an agenda they want Price to adopt within her first 100 days in office — including an end to the prosecution of youth for typical adolescent behaviors like fighting at school, and a policy of presumptively seeking pre-plea restorative justice diversion in lieu of court cases for charges like robbery, assault and burglary.
The coalition noted that Black and brown youth make up 87% of youth on probation and in juvenile detention and have little access to rehabilitation or diversion programs.
“We understand that she has to maintain a delicate balance as DA, but her life experience could set her up to do some amazing things, especially if she gets the support,” said Rocky Hunt, participatory defense coordinator with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.
In an interview with The Imprint, Price described why Alameda County is uniquely prepared to implement youth justice reforms, and how her time in foster care influenced her life.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
More than 50 years ago, you were deeply involved in civil rights protests, even as your home life became unstable. Can you take us back to the days before you entered foster care?
In December 1969, right after Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated by the police in Chicago, I knew that this great travesty of justice, this murder had occurred, and I was incensed. And so I organized a sit-in at my school, Walnut Hills High School. We blocked the entrance outside the principal’s office to protest the murders and we brought some older adults into the school to talk about what had happened. And once the administration figured out who the ringleaders were, I was properly expelled.
My parents were furious, and they forbade me to participate in any more civil rights activities. And of course, I insisted on doing so. So we had a challenging period of time. The results of it being running away from home and the police being called and taking me into custody at age 13 and putting me in juvenile hall.
Then I was placed in foster care. There were at least two different placements that did not work out and with both of them, I ended up running away. For about six weeks, I was moved between foster homes and a group home. Some bad things happened there and I left, only to end up back in juvenile hall. Alice Aaron, my first foster mom, got me out. She literally rescued me from the clutches of the authorities, and I am always ever grateful to her.
What happened next?
I was continuing my activism and living with my foster mother, Alice Aaron, who I called GinaMama, in March of 1970, when I got arrested in a civil rights protest that turned into a clash with the police. I ended up incarcerated for a year at a long-term institution for youth. I was very isolated, which was obviously intentional. It was a very dark time in my life.
My friend’s father, who was very instrumental in the movement in Cincinnati, was killed by the police during the time I was incarcerated. One of the gentlemen that I got arrested with died in custody — they said that he committed suicide. We didn’t actually believe that, but that was the story we got.
I remember a lot of despair, and a lot of feeling abandoned and hopeless and helpless and angry. I continued to make trouble, not necessarily good trouble. I was very challenging in my adolescence. I was a hot mess. But fortunately, I met my second foster mom there, Amy Jenkins. She worked at this facility and she took an interest in me and decided I was not completely worthless. And so she became a mentor to me, someone that I knew I could trust and who cared about me.
How did these chaotic years of being in foster care and on your own shape your adult life?
I can testify that foster children are incredibly resilient, that we have to endure these changes, forces that you have no control over — people making decisions about your life that are not always the best decisions for you. I was so lucky and blessed to have people like my three foster mothers, Alice Aaron, Amy Jenkins and Lorena O’Donnell.
One time, I was supposed to be going to a new high school and the lady there was like, “Well, her records don’t meet our standards and we can’t enroll her.” And I was being rejected and Lorena went to bat for me and persuaded this woman through some magical process to let me enroll in the school. That doesn’t happen if you don’t have an advocate and if you don’t have people guiding you.
Those experiences have always shaped my desire to be an advocate for children. When I had my law practice, we would bring children in from the Richmond Summer Youth Program. And I’d meet with my staff when we would decide which young people to bring in. I would always say, bring me the worst one, the one y’all think is the most difficult, who is not following the instructions, who is questioning everything. Assign that person to me.
I understand the challenges that this person is going to present to an adult who doesn’t think like a child or may not understand what a child’s perspective is. So I’m always mindful that you can’t give up on kids, that kids are incredibly difficult and each one is different. And the one that you think is not ever going to do anything could be the one that goes to the United States Supreme Court.
As you start your new role as district attorney, what opportunities do you see in working with young people who come to the attention of the justice system?
I certainly want to be able to bring the lens of my journey to the work that we have to do with young people. What I often tell them is, this is just a moment in time. Whatever you’ve done, however you got here, this is just one moment in time. And we don’t know where you’re gonna be five years from now.
But to the extent that we have the ability to guide you and to mentor you to be successful, that’s our responsibility. It is not to incarcerate you, to punish you forever for whatever mistake you’ve made, because, for me, I made so many mistakes as a young person; I made so many bad choices. That’s what young people do. And you can’t throw them away.
In terms of my policies, I will not try or charge or incarcerate a young person as an adult. That to me is a human rights violation, and I won’t do it. Anytime we take a child into custody, we are impacting that child in a very deep way. And my charge is to make sure that the system does not destroy them.
Anytime we take a child into custody, we are impacting that child in a very deep way. And my charge is to make sure that the system does not destroy them.— Pamela Price
When you were running for this job last year, a key part of your policy platform was to create “age-appropriate programs” for young adults ages 18 to 25 in the justice system. What prompted you to focus on this and how will you balance more services with accountability?
Well, the first thing that prompted it is, I’m a mother and a grandmother. Those of us that have raised children know that when a child reaches the age of 18, that is not some magical line that they cross where they’re ready for the world. They are not ready for the world at 18 and certainly the world is very, very complicated in particular communities, for many young people. So if you have raised children, you know that they continue to need guidance and support and they continue to make mistakes at age 18,19, 20.
For me, having that life experience is invaluable and as well as understanding the long-term impacts that the criminal justice system has had on young people. I love what Bryan Stevenson says in “Just Mercy,” that none of us want to be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done. And for most young people, that happens probably before they reach the age of 26, some before they reach the age of 18.
We do have to hold young people accountable, but we have an obligation to create measures of accountability and opportunities for accountability that do not destroy the person, that do not forever bar them from being a productive member of society. Not everybody, but most people beyond a certain age are not a threat to public safety. And yet, if we saddle them at an early age with these 25-to-life sentences, we’re robbing our community and our society of some really brilliant people.
California will be completely shuttering its notorious youth prison system in June, and counties will take on full responsibility for providing more effective rehabilitation for the most serious youth offenders in local facilities. What do you think of Alameda County’s progress?
It’s a great opportunity that we have to really reshape how we respond to young people who do some bad things, certainly the more serious offenders. But Alameda County has adopted a “care first” model. And so, I want to see us move in that direction, and begin to adopt the kinds of alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be effective.
We know that restorative justice works, regardless of crime. We know that it works. And so I’m really going to be an advocate for that, and making sure that the county is fully committed to that, with respect to young people in particular. We have the resources, we have the knowledge, we have the capacity to do it. It’s just the political will that has been missing. A governor has opened the door for us to walk through, so we’re going to do that in Alameda County.