Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and veteran prosecutor Mike Hestrin clashed today in their first public debate in the D.A.’s race, with the challenger alleging his boss has caused the agency’s morale to nosedive and put public safety at risk with compromising policies, while the incumbent touted his experience and success in clearing a years-long backlog of criminal cases.
“I have always sought true justice, to punish those who commit crime, and to prevent crime in the first place,” Zellerbach told more than 250 people gathered at the Riverside County Bar Association in downtown Riverside. “This county needs experience and leadership for the future. I was a prosecutor for 22 years and a judge for 11.”
Hestrin said he “loved” the D.A.’s office and its mission and was appalled by changes that had taken place since Zellerbach assumed control in January 2011.
“We’ve lost something,” Hestrin said. “We’ve become ineffective. We’ve been let down by Mr. Zellerbach. The public deserves a D.A. they can trust and (who) will not cut corners. It matters who’s in charge.”
The debate covered a range of issues, from state public safety realignment — under which many convicts are sentenced to jail instead of prison — to deterring and punishing gang-related crimes.
Hestrin called the incumbent out on several points, including a recent mailer in which Zellerbach’s campaign indicated conviction rates had reached 81 percent since he took office — compared to 40 percent under his predecessor.
“I’m dismayed by this lack of credibility,” Hestrin said. “We need a D.A. who is honest and genuine in his arguments.”
According to figures supplied by the Judicial Council of California, in the fiscal year before Zellerbach took office, 2009-10, the overall conviction rate was 86.4 percent, while in 2011-12 — the most recent stats available – the rate was 84 percent in Riverside County.
Zellerbach did not respond directly to the allegation, instead noting that when he became D.A., the local judicial system was in “chaos” as a result of predecessor Rod Pacheco’s no-plea-bargains policy, creating a backlog
of upwards of 500 untried felony cases.
“What happened to all those cases? They’ve been resolved under my leadership,” Zellerbach said.
Hestrin took issue with the D.A.’s statement that “line” prosecutor had discretion to proceed with resolving cases however they see fit, arguing that under the current administration, supervisors micro-manage the process.
“You’re not being honest, Mr. Zellerbach,” Hestrin said. ”Things are not running smoothly. Ask around.”
The D.A. attempted to draw parallels between Hestrin and Pacheco, who sued when the Superior Court refused to make probate and family courtrooms available to try cases bumping into speedy trial violations in 2007. Zellerbach said his predecessor’s hard-line stance was a needless waste of legal resources, which ended in failure.
Hestrin acknowledged that plea bargains are part of the process, but said the D.A.’s office should be about ”building consensus,” prompting Zellerbach to retort, ”I’ve already done it!”
Hestrin characterized statewide public safety realignment, implemented in October 2011, as a “disaster” for Riverside County, where maxed-out correctional facilities resulted in the sheriff’s department releasing a total 16,276 inmates in 2012 and 2013.
According to Hestrin, the “early releases” have been exacerbated by Zellerbach’s penchant for so-called “split sentencing” under which convicts spend part of their sentence behind bars and the rest under mandatory supervision, which can include wearing ankle bracelets to monitor their whereabouts.
“Where are the ideas to deal with these early releases?” Hestrin said, arguing that more inmates back on the streets has translated to spikes in area crime. He advocated making misdemeanor convicts do more community service
and probation — keeping them out of jail and freeing up space — while curbing the use of split sentences for more serious offenders.
“I’ve been fighting with the sheriff for years now (over early releases),” Zellerbach replied. “We need more jails and more prisons, but we also need programs to end recidivism. Split sentences are a tool.”
Hestrin criticized the incumbent for an alleged lack of proactive policies to clamp down on the more than 10,000 documented gang members countywide, noting that since Zellerbach took office, no gang injunction lawsuits have been filed against the 390 identified local gangs.
“Gang crime is up, and we’re doing nothing about it,” the prosecutor said. “We’ve gone from 14 gang investigators in our office to two.”
Zellerbach said that when he slashed the number of D.A. personnel assigned to the gang task force, he had received assurances that Sheriff Stan Sniff would “backfill” the positions.
“We’re not a frontline law enforcement agency,” the district attorney said.
When debate moderator Susan Exon asked about morale in the D.A.’s office, Zellerbach answered that “the proof is in the pudding.”
“Our attorneys love their jobs. They love their work. They have the resources they need,” he said.
Hestrin drew laughs when he asked, “What pudding are you eating?”
He said that a vote taken last May showed 207 of the agency’s 212 attorneys supported him and that the current administration manifests a “fundamental lack of respect and trust.”
“Morale is in the tank,” Hestrin said.
Zellerbach said it was “difficult to appease everybody” in an office with 750 employees and a $100 million budget.
The candidates did not take questions from the audience. However, both made themselves available to reporters after the debate. When asked why earlier in the week he had announced he would not be participating in the forum, Zellerbach replied that he had “reconsidered” his initial position, which he never made public.
City News Service asked the D.A. specifically about the current Indio police investigation into allegations that he pulled down Hestrin campaign signs while on county time — incidents the D.A. has described as “silly” and “much ado about nothing.”
Zellerbach became visibly irritated when asked about the uprooting of three signs outside an Indio convenience store, where he also planted one of his own, purportedly with the consent of the owner, whom he called “an old friend.”
“How would you like it … if somebody put a sign up in your yard that you didn’t want?”, Zellerbach said.
When asked why the Hestrin signs would even be a concern to him, Zellerbach walked away, refusing to answer additional questions.