By David M. Greenwald
DA Todd Spitzer was the star of the show on Monday evening even though he was the only candidate not participating in the candidate’s forum. Challengers Pete Hardin, Bryan Chehock and Michael Jacobs all participated in the forum.
An organizer from the OC DA Candidates Forum Coalition explained, “We are holding a chair for incumbent candidate Todd Spitzer in the case that he arrives for the forum we reached out to their campaign. But unfortunately they mentioned they would they would not, they would be unavailable for this forum.”
During opening comments, Bryan Chehock said “with respect to the district attorney’s office. I believe it should be apolitical and, and committed to the ensuring the fair, equal, and transparent administration of justice. Unfortunately, we have had the past two office holders be rocked by scandals. The current district attorney has used racist and derogatory language in public and behind closed doors. It’s facing multiple lawsuits that may cost the county millions of dollars and continues to engage in behavior that only further alienates members of this community.”
He said, “Quite frankly, I entered this race because I believe Orange County deserves better. We need somebody unconnected to the issues of the past and present and somebody who can provide independent and unbiased leadership while restoring public confidence in the office and the justice system as a whole.”
Chehock said he has been with the US DOJ since 2006. In 2016, “I transferred to the Southern District of California to serve as counsel for the Drug Enforcement Administration. As counsel, I work with a approximately 350 special agents, task force officers and others to prosecute drug cartel members, street level fentanyl dealers, gang members, and doctors and pharmacies that divert controlled substances.”
Pete Hardin said, “If there’s one thing I will want everyone to know about me, it’s that I’ve always answered the call to serve.” He said his parents “instilled in me the values that guided them first and foremost integrity, servant leadership, courage, respect, and compassion for our fellow community members, whether as a Marine Corps officer in garrison or at war in Afghanistan, or as a military, federal or local prosecutor right here in Orange County.
“Serving and protecting our communities with those values at heart have always been what has driven me. Now with crime and homelessness surging in Orange County, above and beyond the levels we see across the state, and our current district attorney drowning in a sea of scandals and end endless lawsuits that cost us taxpayers millions of dollars—I feel called to serve again.”
He said, “I’ll restore professionalism and integrity to the district attorney’s office by providing leadership, not showmanship to the dedicated public servants, who staff that office and to you, the people of Orange County. I’ll work to solve the underlying drivers of crime. Look, prosecutors see people recycle through the system time and again, for a variety of crimes, but the same underlying set of factors, addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
“Until we recognize those as the public health crises that they are and treat them as such, instead of simply hitting people over the head with punishment, time and time, again, expecting a different result, we will continue this ever revolving criminal justice cycle that increases crime and homelessness.”
Michael Jacobs said he has spent close to 30 years in the DA’s office. He said, “I think I happen to be the only candidate who spent time in the office like that. And the only candidate who worked in vertical trial units and the only candidate who supervised vertical trial units.”
He said, “I know how to do the work. I’ve done it.”
Jacobs said that he’s known Todd Spitzer for a long time, and “it happened to be that I supervised him for a year and three months when he was on the felony panel. He did nine trials and then he left the office.”
The impact of that has been, “I think you could term it almost chaos. You’ve had serious cases that have been compromised. You have 16 lawsuits that have been filed.” He said, “So there seems to be a management problem there having to do with agenda that needs to be worked out.”
First question: What specific actions will you take to instruct prosecutors to consider immigration related consequences at all stages of a case? And how will you use your discretion to reach immigration safe dispositions for non-citizens?
Bryan Chehock: “Immigration is an incredibly complex issue. I mean, it is a patchwork of federal and state laws, executive orders and federal policy initiatives. It would be very, very difficult for district attorneys to be experts in immigration law, as well as the prosecution aspect. So I’m not sure there is a mechanism by which one could actually inform a criminal defendant of all potential immigration related effects of pleading guilty or going to trial.”
Pete Hardin: “One of the top priorities of my campaign has been, and my administration will be building bridges with our immigrant communities, which are integral to the safety and productivity of our county as a whole. Our current district attorney talks tough about following the law, but he hasn’t even acknowledged the state of the law in this area that California law, according to the Supreme Court, requires prosecutors to take into consideration immigration consequences. And our district attorney is not talking about that or training his prosecutors to do that wherever possible. We must pursue charges that won’t trigger immigration consequences so as not to punish people twice, once in the criminal justice system, and again, in the immigration system.”
Michael Jacobs: “I researched this and did some looking into this last night, because this has been an issue that came up particularly during President Trump’s campaign in 2016 and after he was elected. And what the problem is that the California Trust Act, Truth Act and the Values Act all conflict with (Title) 8 US Code.”
These laws lay out specific things that “local prosecutors are not suppose to do. The problem is those conflict against the federal laws.” He added, “So the problem you have now is you have California law that conflicts with federal law, and the problem is there’s no enforcement rules.”
Question: What are your plans to ensure Orange County increases access to diversion programs and necessary resources like community based mental health treatment as a means to create more alternatives to incarceration. And will you commit to increasing veterans court?
Michael Jacobs: “One of the big problems that I’ve gathered is the failure of the federal Veterans Administration to take care of our veterans.” He said, “Therefore, I think the problem has become a local issue as well. I think the only way that prosecutors can get it involved is to recognize, and I’ve seen this myself from the years that I’ve been in practice. I’ve seen cases where you have to make, you have to customize the case to fit the person and their medical problems, because the mental issues are what’s causing the criminal acts.”
Pete Hardin: “I will expand access to veterans court and courts to treat people with addiction and mental illnesses.” He added, “It’s important that we recognize this as a byproduct of our broken, revolving door, criminal justice system. We’ve got to recognize these issues as a public health crisis that they are and get at the root issues of crime instead of criminalizing them. We’ve got to expand diversion programs. But we also have to ensure that they reflect the most modern medical information and data and social science that tells us very clearly that addiction is not linear. There are going to be bumps in the road, and we can’t have a zero tolerance policy for people to stay in these programs.”
Bryan Chehock: “I would also agree to increase access to veterans court.” He said, “This is an all too common problem. We’re not only experiencing here in Orange County, but across the United States. It’s important to understand that government and particularly the law enforcement side, it’s basically a sledge hammer. It is not the organization that you want to go to, to fix sort of mental health and related issues. We can do everything we can, but at the end of the day very well intentioned programs have disastrous consequences.”
Question: Are you open to expanding Orange County’s young adult courts to have more use, including those accused of violent crimes? Why or why not?
Pete Hardin: “I will absolutely commit to doubling down on those types of programs, which are proven to reduce recidivism and lead to positive life outcomes. But I want to go beyond that. Modern science tells us what parents have always known that the human brain cognitively doesn’t stop developing until about the age of 25. Kids can do some dumb things, no doubt about it with all due respect to my nine year old, who I know is watching at home, they can do some silly things, um, that can get them in trouble, but we parents also know the kids have a remarkable ability to adapt and learn and grow, and we need to support those rather than criminalizing their behavior. Look, we pay a terrible price for criminalizing youth in our society.” He added, “I am committed to ending the prosecution of children as adults.”
Bryan Chehock: “I would also commit to expanding access to juvenile courts and programs like that. I actually believe that Prop 57 strikes the right balance. It is important that prosecutors have a check on the power to charge a juvenile and adult court and I believe requiring a judge to approve that that charge is the appropriate framework. Look at absolutely 100%, the presumption is that a juvenile should not be tried in, in adult court. However, there are instances in which juveniles have committed heinous crimes.” He said, “I would absolutely commit to, to the presumption and even the, the standard being juveniles tried in alternative courts. I could not wholeheartedly agree that that would never occur in adult court.”
Michael Jacobs: “I have to say, I totally disagree with Mr. Harden about refusing to prosecute juveniles under any circumstance. I think that’s, my problem is I’ve been there. I’ve been out there in the trenches. I’ve seen what 15- and 16-year-olds will do. And when you have a 15-year-old or a 16-year-old, who, who shoots two people at a party and kills them for no reason, they need to be incarcerated for more than past their age of 25. So I think proposition go 57 goes far enough. I don’t think we need to go any further.”
Pete Hardin got a quick response: “I want to make clear that I do not believe in blanket policies. In extreme cases and they are very rare, but they are extreme cases we may look at prosecuting a juvenile as an adult. I agree with Mr. Chehock on that, but as a general matter, as a presumption, we should not be charging juveniles as adults. And I want to make that very clear.”