Three candidates running in the June election to be District Attorney for Riverside County offered their views on a wide range of issues – including the death penalty, ways to address homelessness and how to deal with criminal case backlogs — Friday at a Riverside County Bar Association forum.
The forum offered the candidates – incumbent Mike Hestrin, defense attorney Lara Gressley and Superior Court Justice Burke Strunsky – a chance to highlight their different approaches on a variety of policies, with the pair of challengers to Hestrin arguing that the county needs change in its senior prosecutor’s office.
Hestrin, who has held the post since 2014 and is seeking a third term, declared his leadership through turbulent times, for two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what he called “eight years of ‘self- saying ‘justice reform’. and the radical policies of politicians in Sacramento and the Bay Area,” proves he deserves another term.
“We are facing crime across this country and across this state…and no one is being spared,” Hestrin said. “In Riverside County, our violent crime rate has gone up, but if you do a fair comparison, between our county and our neighboring counties in Southern California, and other counties that have a similar population, you’ll see that our county is among the safest. living spaces. »
While promising to enforce the law “as written”, Hestrin said he would not take a “one size fits all” approach, citing as an example a crime prevention unit set up by his office in start of his first term. of its efforts to reduce high school dropout and recidivism rates.
Strunsky, who stepped down as a judge after announcing his candidacy in January, argued that Riverside County’s criminal justice system is “on a perilous path,” noting that he is the only candidate with experience in multiple system roles.
“Make no mistake about it, this election is about a choice about the future of Riverside County’s criminal justice system, a choice between just speaking tough on crime and being effective on crime,” Strunsky said, adding that he thought the office should establish a “second-look unit” to review cases initiated by the prosecutor and “make sure we haven’t made any mistakes”.
“We need to be transparent and independent. Independent means never accepting contributions from anyone we have removed from scrutiny,” he added, continuing his criticism of Hestrin’s financial support by local law enforcement groups.
Gressley, who unsuccessfully challenged Hestrin in the 2018 race, said she was running to address injustices she had encountered during her career as a lawyer, adding that she considered overcrowding in prisons of Riverside County as one of the biggest problems in the area’s criminal justice system.
“It wastes thousands of taxpayer dollars to have unnecessarily long incarcerations in our prisons,” Gressley said. “They cost about $60,000 to incarcerate someone in our prison for a year. We need to stop wasting that money. »
Candidates debate whether to pursue death penalty cases
During the forum, the candidates discussed whether to pursue death penalty cases in Riverside County, which led the nation in death penalty cases filed between 2015 and 2019, according to a Center report. information on the death penalty.
Hestrin acknowledged that the death penalty has been historically “overused” in Riverside County, and said his office has “reduced the scope of cases where we seek the death penalty.” Hestrin said the county has gone from 46 pending death penalty cases at its peak in 2011, to 15 in 2022.
“We’ve done that through many things, making sure to only seek the death penalty where the facts and circumstances call for something more than life without parole,” Hestrin said.
Although Governor Gavin Newsom imposed an indefinite moratorium on executions in 2019, Hestrin said capital punishment is still “the law of the land” in California.
“I think sometimes the death penalty is appropriate, but it should be used rarely and only when life without parole is not enough,” Hestrin added. “We are not trying to be the capital of the death penalty, and I think 2015 was an aberration, because the rest of my time in office I exercised great restraint .”
Continued:The Question of the Death Penalty: Riverside County and the Moratorium on the Execution of Governor Newsom
Gressley responded by noting that Riverside County also led the nation in death penalty cases in 2017, according to a Death Penalty Information Center report.
She also mentioned the much higher cost of prosecuting death penalty cases compared to life without parole cases, adding that she would only prosecute death penalty cases in “very rare” situations.
In contrast, Strunsky said he would not prosecute the death penalty as the county’s district attorney and criticized the prosecution of death penalty cases as money spent “on ideology”.
“We also know that we have limited funds and a district attorney has to decide how to use the resources,” Strunsky said.
“There’s no way anyone will be executed on a conviction from Riverside County in the near future,” Strunsky said. “Mr. Hestrin knows this. He knows this isn’t going to happen, but he’s spending millions of your tax dollars pursuing this false promise.
Hestrin and Strunsky disagree on the criminal courts’ treatment of the homeless
The candidates also disagreed over a recently unveiled program by Hestrin’s office to provide community treatment to homeless people facing criminal charges for low-level crimes.
Strunsky called the program “regressive,” arguing that the district attorney should join the state-level push for homelessness cases to be taken to civilian court for further mental health treatment. .
“Homelessness has nothing to do with the criminal justice system,” Strunsky said. “We have to move it to the civil courts, and we have to be human and realize that these are not crimes. These are people who need help. »
Hestrin countered by pointing to voter-approved initiatives such as Proposition 47, which in 2014 reclassified certain crimes as misdemeanors, arguing that such changes made it harder for his office to compel people to seek treatment.
“Moving homelessness to the civil courts is a disaster that will make it 10 times worse than it is now,” Hestrin said.
“I’m not proposing in the new homeless court to jail homeless people, but we’re proposing to force them into treatment,” Hestrin said. “If that means they go to the jail beds for two or three days to dry them up, to stop taking the drugs they’re on, we can do that, and it’s not cruel. .”
Gressley said if elected, she would propose a public-private task force to tackle homelessness crimes.
“I will support any effort to sit down with basically people who work on the front line, working there with nonprofits and some agencies to try to understand why these crimes are happening and try to prevent them in the beginning. “, said Gressley.
Candidates agree civil trials should not be suspended to deal with backlog of criminal cases
Although they disagreed on some issues, the candidates found common ground at the forum, with all three agreeing that civil trials should not be put on hold to prioritize the county’s criminal case backlog amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Hestrin’s challengers argued that the district attorney’s office failed to adequately address the issue. Strunsky estimated that 1,800 cases needed to be tried in Riverside County, and said there had been “no effort to reduce those cases and get rid of low-level and mid-level cases.”
“It seems like the district attorney doesn’t realize this is a huge problem,” Strunsky said. “All we have to do is look at the numbers.”
Hestrin responded by noting that his office disposed of more criminal cases in the 2019-20 fiscal year, which includes the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, than any county except Los Angeles. , according to a report by the State Judicial Council. Hestrin said his office is working to “triage” the cases.
“What I suspect is that a lot of these cases, when they see the light of a courtroom, will go to trial, because we’re offering low-cost deals for a lot of these cases,” said Hestrin. “So I think there’s a way out of this.”
Gressley said the county has “a lot of cases” to settle, but added that she had “a different perspective” from Hestrin on the matter.
“I don’t think there are a lot of basic deals going on,” Gressley said. “I think we need to be more reasonable and stop bickering about a minor prison sentence, house arrest or things like that. We have to settle cases.
The election between the three candidates is scheduled for June 7, with a potential runoff between the top two in November if no candidate emerges with a majority of votes.
Tom Coulter covers politics and can be reached at [email protected]