Three lawyers have set their eyes on the District Attorney’s seat, hoping to replace Todd Spitzer as Orange County’s top prosecutor and oversee a justice system that has faced criticism and calls for reform by residents.

Spitzer, who is looking to stay on as the District Attorney, has recently become embroiled in various scandals and lawsuits and has faced recent pressure to resign.

His opponents say it’s time for a new DA and a fresh vision of justice for Orange County, but some of them have also faced controversy.

The battle for Orange County’s top prosecutor seat comes as residents have raised concerns about the county leading the state in transferring inmates to Immigration and Custom Enforcement for possible deportation.

There’s also concerns raised about racial disparities in prosecution rates.

A report published by the ACLU found that 6% of the people charged by the DA’s office in 2017-2018 were Black and 43% were Latino, despite Black people making up about 2% of the population and Latinos making up about 34% residents.

While Spitzer, who was elected in 2018, and his office did not provide the ACLU with data from his tenure, the Voice of OC obtained records from the Superior Court showing that the most-prosecuted crime in Orange County is possession of drug paraphernalia for using drugs.

The District Attorney race also comes after another spike in hate crimes in 2020, according to a report by the OC Human Relations Commission.

Candidates had an opportunity to address some of these issues and their positions on police accountability, juvenile incarceration, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system at a debate Monday.

The debate was hosted by a group of nonprofits including Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development and Resilience OC.

Spitzer was the only candidate who didn’t show up to the debate.

A member of Spitzer’s campaign told the Voice of OC Tuesday afternoon that Spitzer had confirmed with organizers weeks prior that he would be unable to attend the debate because of “personal obligations.”

They added that Spitzer intends to attend a forum on May 4 held by the North Orange County Bar Association.

Michael Jacobs (Left), Pete Hardin (center) and Bryan Chehock (right) at the OC DA Debate on April 25, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Bryan Chehock

Bryan Chehock, who has experience working for the U.S. Department of Justice and an attorney for the Drug Enforcement Administration, called out both Spitzer and Spitzer’s predecessor, Tony Rackauckas for their scandals.

“The current district attorney has used racist and derogatory language in public and behind closed doors is 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 at the forum.

Chehock said he was foregoing campaign contributions because he is committed to creating an independent DA’s office and promised his administration would make “fair, equal and transparent” decisions if elected.

Bryan Chehock during the OC District Attorney debate on April 25, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

He also said he would commit to expanding access to juvenile court.

“However, there are instances in which juveniles have committed heinous crimes,” Chehock said. “While I would absolutely commit to the presumption and even the standard being juveniles tried in alternative courts I could not wholeheartedly agree that that would never occur in adult court.”

When asked about what he would do to protect the LGBTQ+ community from “rogue cops”, Chehock said the answer was through education.

Chehock said he would do a systematic review of laws to see which are perpetuating racial stereotypes in effort to address racial disparities in OC’s legal system.

“I would take it upon myself to empower prosecutors to make individual charging and sentencing decisions to make sure that we were not perpetuating racial stereotypes or racial disparities simply for the sake of making an argument that we’re making Orange County safer,” he said.

Pete Hardin

Pete Hardin, a Marine combat veteran and former prosecutor, also called out Spitzer at the debate over the scandals and on repeatedly on Twitter for not showing up to the debate.

The former prosecutor himself faced criticism over how he allegedly treated women when working as a prosecutor at the DA’s office.

[Read: Hardin Was Counseled About Being Seen as a ‘Womanizer’ at OCDA, Says Retired Top Official]

Hardin promised to work to solve the “underlying drivers of crime,” which he described as addiction, mental illness and homelessness and promised to prioritize support for victims of crime.

He also committed to expanding programs like OC’s youth courts and ending the prosecution of “children as adults.”

“We pay a terrible price for criminalizing youth in our society. When kids are locked up with older, hardened defenders that should surprise none of us that they’re abused, and they learn from them and when they get out, they lash out,” he said at the debate.

When asked about how he would protect the LGBTQ+ community from being targeted by police or people in the streets, Hardin criticized Spitzer who he said worked against the community his whole career.

Pete Hardin at the OC District Attorney debate on April 25, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“It’s not enough just to brag about prosecuting hate crime, hate crime against that community is, unsurprisingly, growing out of control,” Hardin said. “We’ve got to work with community stakeholders across Orange County, to address the underlying fundamental societal issues that are leading to this kind of hate in the first place.”

He pledged to fix racial disparities in OC’s justice system by expanding diversion programs and base bail on community safety.

Hardin also promised to create a dedicated unit to review potential police misconduct cases.

“I won’t be afraid to charge law enforcement officers when they break the law,” he said, adding that most people in law enforcement are heroes and that he won’t just prosecute police officers for “political points.”

Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs, former Orange County District Attorney’s office supervisor and prosecutor for 30 years, also criticized Spitzer who said he supervised for a little over a year.

Jacobs was fired from the District Attorney’s office in 2001 after asking the state attorney general to investigate former DA Tony Rackauckas for allegedly shutting down investigations into friends and political allies. He was later rehired in 2003.

The former prosecutor himself is not without controversy and has faced allegations of withholding evidence about jailhouse informants from defense attorneys, according to the OC Register.

Michael Jacobs answers resident questions at the OC District Attorney debate on April 25, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

When it comes to how to prosecute juveniles, Jacobs disagreed with his opponent Hardin.

“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 shoots two people at a party and kills them for no reason. They need to be incarcerated past their age at 25,” Jacobs said.

Hardin later clarified that in extreme conditions, if elected, his office would look at prosecuting a juvenile as an adult.

When Jacobs was asked how he’d protect the LGBTQ+ community from harassment from cops following, he said the issue had to do with police accountability.

“That’s been a real problem in Orange County, for I think the last 20 years or more,” he said. “I remember running a search and seeing how very few cases are filed against the police for anything, whether it’s for booking evidence for brutality, there are virtually no filings at all, really.”

When asked what specific actions he would use to address racial disparities in OC’s legal system, Jacobs said it is to eliminate racist atitudes in the DA’s office.

Jacobs said there has been “blanket immunity” for police misconduct in Orange County under both Spitzer and Rackauckas.

“How do you correct that? You get a new DA,” he said.

Todd Spitzer

Where is Todd Spitzer?

That was the question several Orange County residents and even candidates running against Spitzer, the incumbent, to become the County’s next District Attorney were asking after he didn’t show up at a debate held Monday afternoon.

Protest signs against Todd Spitzer placed outside the OC District Attorney’s debate on April 25, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Spitzer has recently been hit with a series of lawsuits over his handling of workplace harassment as well as concerns from prosecutors that he jeopardized a mass shooting case.

Last month, the local chapter of the NAACP called on Spitzer to resign over the district attorney’s treatment of people of color.

To date, Spitzer’s campaign has largely ignored Jacobs and Chehock mainly focusing negative attacks on Hardin, comparing him to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon and called him a predator in an ad they paid for.

In a press release on Tuesday, Spitzer’s campaign doubled down on that comparison.

“Pete Hardin let the cat out of the bag during the candidate forum by unequivocally demonstrating he is a carbon copy of failed LADA George Gascon. Hardin’s pro-criminal platform mirrors Gascon’s radical agenda to a tee,” reads the statement. “Hardin’s open support for the woke criminal justice agenda should be a major warning to all Orange County residents – your safety is at stake in the upcoming District Attorney’s race.”

Spitzer has listed his priorities as stopping Orange County from becoming like Los Angeles in his campaign website and says he has pursued reforms to the criminal justice system.

Spitzer’s campaign website also states he has focused on prosecuting hate crimes in his tenure.

“Since taking office, I have made going after the haters one of my top priorities,” his website reads. “Over the last two years, our office has prosecuted more than twice the number of hate crimes than were prosecuted by previous administrations in the past 25 years. When hate crimes do occur, we bring the full force of the law against the losers who perpetrate such evil acts.”

The primary election is set to take place on June 7, 2022

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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