Editor’s note: Ahead of next week’s election, Voice of OC is publishing a series of candidate surveys for the various races. Click here to see all of the surveys that have been published so far.
To help voters compare candidates in the June primary election, Voice of OC asked readers what they wanted to know from the candidates vying for what many consider Orange County’s most powerful position: district attorney.
Below are the answers all four candidates gave to a wide variety of questions generated by Voice of OC and our readers – on topics ranging from public safety, evidence scandals, transparency, the death penalty, homelessness and whether candidates believe last presidential election was stolen.
To keep the total length reasonable, each candidate was allowed a maximum 50 words per answer.
Here are their answers:
1. What do you see as the biggest problem facing the criminal justice system today? What will you do about it? And what if anything have you done so far to show you’re serious about tackling it?
Todd Spitzer: “Woke prosecutors are refusing to enforce the law or prosecute criminals. As a result, places like Los Angeles and San Francisco are being destroyed. As your District Attorney, public safety is my number one priority, and I will never turn a blind eye to crime.”
Pete Hardin: “Failing to address underlying drivers of crime has created a revolving door leading to more crime and victims. We jail the mentally ill, addicted, and homeless instead of applying modern approaches that break the cycle. Spitzer’s approach has exacerbated homelessness and the behavioral health crisis on our streets.”
Bryan Chehock: “A lack of trust in, and respect for, the justice system. I have spent 23 years in the federal justice system fighting to deliver justice for all. I will enforce the law in a fair, equal, and transparent manner, while conducting all activities ethically and respectfully.”
Michael A. Jacobs: “Presently, I see the biggest problem facing the criminal justice system today as having at least three main components: a progressive legislature, a deranged governor, and Propositions 47 and 57. To combat the situation: Support local police in efforts to employ aggressive but fair enforcement of the laws.”
2. What will you do as DA to keep Orange County communities safe?
Spitzer: “Orange County is the safest major county in California for a reason – I enforce the law and hold criminals accountable. My office goes after hard core gangs, sex offenders, human traffickers, drunk drivers, skin heads, animal abusers, smash and grab crews, and others with the full force of the law.”
Hardin: “I will prioritize the prosecution of violent crime while addressing the root causes of low-level offenses that plague our communities. I will invest in mental health services, substance use treatment, and employment training. I will expand victims services and support victims regardless of case outcomes.”
Chehock: “I will vigorously enforce the law while distinguishing between those who deserve imprisonment and those who merit a different approach. Alternative courts (e.g., veterans or CARES) serve the community well and should be made more widely available. However, communities are safer when violent criminals are removed from our streets.”
Jacobs: “Bring back the focus of the DA’s Office to the investigation and prosecution of important cases, employ new strategies to successfully prosecute human trafficking as well as international drug cartels, recruit new and experienced attorneys.”
3. There is a crisis of confidence in Orange County’s criminal justice system, with repeated disclosures of prosecutors failing to turn over evidence. How would you address that crisis of confidence? What would you do on that front? If you’re the incumbent, what have you done on that front and what will you do?
Spitzer: “Since taking office, I’ve implemented major reforms to ensure integrity in prosecutions, fired unethical prosecutors, held bad cops accountable, investigated evidence booking issues, closed the door on my predecessor’s snitch scandal, and overturned ill-gotten convictions as a result. We’ve ended the ‘win at all costs’ mentality in the office.”
Hardin: “I’ll enhance transparency through an unprecedented effort to disclose prosecutorial data. I’ll meet with the community, victims, and law enforcement alike with regularity, and I’ll be available to the media. When there are mistakes I will own them instead of covering them up. I’ll implement an open discovery policy.”
Chehock: “Prosecutors who fail to follow the law and intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence will be terminated and referred to the State Bar. Along with outside experts, I will review all policies and procedures to ensure the timely disclosure of all information and the office will practice open-file discovery.”
Jacobs: “As far as crisis of discovery issues in DA’s Office, [the] only practical remedy is training. Ethical and experienced prosecutors are necessary to supervise and implement this. There has recently been a marked exodus of such attorneys from the Office.”
4. What, if anything, will you change about how the DA’s Office handles defendants who have a mental illness, addiction, and/or are homeless?
Spitzer: “I’ve launched a comprehensive program to reduce recidivism by connecting individuals who commit low-level crimes with mental health and substance abuse services before charges are filed. The program requires individuals complete treatment for the underlying issues to have charges reduced. We have also fully staffed the mental health courts.”
Hardin: “When minor offenses result from mental illness, addiction, and/or homelessness, incarceration should be a last resort as it tends to exacerbate these issues when we need to treat them. I’ll eliminate arbitrary barriers to diversion as recommended by watch dogs which will reduce reoffending and increase safety.”
Chehock: “Ultimately the solutions to these issues reside outside the justice system. However, we are facing a crisis and the use of alternative courts and outreach programs must be expanded to reach all of our vulnerable communities. These programs are effective, cost efficient, and the right thing to do.”
Jacobs: “There are a number of programs presently available for defendants who have mental illness, addiction, and/or are homeless. Most promising is the Care Court program which matches a social worker with a public defender to try to divert defendants from the justice system.”
5. Do you support the death penalty? Why or why not?
Spitzer: “I support the death penalty for the most heinous offenders. There are people who commit such horrific acts of violence they cannot live in our society, and we cannot risk having unilateral changes by the state legislature or the governor to allow these monsters to once again be free.”
Hardin: “I will punish the most heinous capital murders with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. I will not seek death. Seeking the death penalty drags victims through decades of appeals and costs taxpayers millions – all for a sentence that will never be carried out and doesn’t prevent crime.”
Chehock: “Although a death sentence is unlikely to ever be carried out in California, there are certain horrific crimes that deserve such a sentence. Ultimately, I would consider seeking the death penalty only in rare circumstances where guilt is not an issue and all immediate family members support such a sentence.”
Jacobs: “Yes. I support the death penalty. I have seen many cases where the crime involved was so atrocious that even the ultimate penalty did not seem sufficient. Arguments against the death penalty for it being racially applied, too costly, inhuman, and not serving a valid purpose seem based more upon dogma than fact.”
6. What, if anything, will you do to proactively identify wrongful convictions? What is your track record on this?
Spitzer: “In addition to investigating the evidence booking and informant scandals – and instituting reforms and overturning convictions as a result – I created a specific conviction integrity unit with the District Attorney’s office to ensure due process and equal treatment under the law.”
Hardin: “Experts estimate that at least 2% of all criminal convictions are of innocent people meaning thousands of innocent people are currently behind bars in California. As DA, I will expand and strengthen the Conviction Integrity Unit by working with experts to change the approach and staffing of the unit.”
Chehock: “A Conviction Integrity Unit is of paramount importance to an effective justice system because it addresses the original miscarriage of justice of a wrongful conviction and often identifies misconduct responsible for the wrongful conviction. By addressing these systemic failures, we actually increase public confidence in the justice system.”
Jacobs: “In 2002, while working for OCDA, I created the Orange County Innocence Project. The project distributed forms to all California state prisons for inmates to fill out and send back if they felt they had been wrongly convicted. I don’t believe the program still exists. It should be resurrected.”
7. What should happen to prosecutors who fail in their duty to to turn over exculpatory evidence to defendants?
Spitzer: “They no longer have a job at the District Attorney’s office.”
Hardin: “DA Spitzer has allowed a ‘win at all cost’ mentality to continue and that destroys public trust in our criminal justice system. Prosecutorial misconduct will not be tolerated and prosecutors that do not meet their obligations under the law will be disciplined.”
Chehock: “Every instance of such conduct should be fully and immediately investigated. Prosecutors who fail to follow the law and intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence will be terminated and referred to the State Bar. Prosecutors who make an honest mistake will receive additional training and supervision.”
Jacobs: “If the exculpatory evidence was discovered, knowingly withheld, and not turned over to the defense in a timely fashion, that should be grounds for termination.”
8. There’s been a lot of talk about criminal justice reform during the campaign. What kinds of specific reforms do you see as needed? And if you’re the incumbent, what specifically have you instituted?
Spitzer: “I do not accept failed social experiments like what has been done in Los Angeles. Instead, I’ve implemented common sense and appropriate reforms that do not jeopardize public safety, including increased job training, mental health and addiction treatment, and the creation of conviction integrity and recidivism reduction units.”
Hardin: “My campaign is centered on criminal justice reform, as reform and public safety go hand-in-hand. I strongly support policies that will expand victims’ services, combat violent crime, increase transparency and accountability, and end mass incarceration. You can find a comprehensive list of reforms at my website: PeteHardin.com”
Chehock: “The single most effective strategy for reforming the justice system is to make it more reflective of the community it represents. This applies equally to the DA’s office, law enforcement, and judges. I will also create a multi-cultural community council to serve as an advisory board to the District Attorney.”
Jacobs: “In regard to criminal justice reform, many such laws have already enacted, not always to the benefit of the criminal justice system. Additionally to a number of legislature changes to requirements for felony murder and juveniles arrested for prostitution, Propositions 47 and 57 may have tipped the scales too far.”
9. The DA’s Office often takes weeks to turn over basic public records in response to Public Records Act requests, even though the law requires prompt disclosure. What steps, if any, will you take to make DA records more quickly disclosed in response to public records requests?
Spitzer: “As District Attorney, I have made it a priority to be transparent, and to always be available for the public and press. I have also made sure the public understands where I stand on the prosecution of crime, woke criminal justice policies, and other important issues of the day.”
Hardin: “I pledge to make the DA’s office one of the most transparent in the country. I will create a publicly available data portal that tracks office data so information like arrests presented, prosecution rates and more are readily accessible.”
Chehock: “I will respond promptly to all requests for information. Furthermore, I will release statistical information (e.g., types of cases prosecuted, race of defendant, etc.) on a publicly accessible website without waiting for a records request. My office will be dedicated to transparency and accountability.”
Jacobs: “Not only is the DA’s Office untimely in fulfilling Public Records Act request they also, on many occasions, refuse to provide information, hiding behind discretionary exemptions such as the investigation exemption. Remedy: get a new District Attorney.”
10. DAs can send warning letters to local agencies on violations of open meeting laws, which it has done in the past with bodies like the Capistrano Unified school board and the Laguna Beach City Council. How do you plan to exercise that enforcement?
Spitzer: “Enforcing public transparency and corruption laws is an important aspect of my role as District Attorney. Cities under my jurisdiction know that I have taken, and will continue to take, appropriate action when necessary, which is a useful deterrent in and of itself.”
Hardin: “Integrity, transparency, and accountability are integral to democracy. I will take all necessary action to ensure that public meetings remain public and accessible.”
Chehock: “I will use warning letters to educate local agencies about their legal obligations. I will send such letters to the relevant board, as well as legal counsel. Each letter would include links to published California Department of Justice guides regarding open meeting laws.”
Jacobs: “The Brown Act governs meetings conducted by all local agencies. The Act provides criminal misdemeanors for certain violations where members deprive the public of information to which the public is entitled. The Act also provides for civil remedies: (1) injunctions or declaratory relief and (2) actions to void past acts.”
11. Do you believe the last presidential election was stolen?
Spitzer: “This is the most irrelevant question ever asked on a DA questionnaire. More relevantly – District Attorney’s races across the country are being bought and paid for by the woke criminal justice movement, and it is destroying public safety in America. My opponent Pete Hardin is part of that radical movement.”
Jacobs: “Yes. I believe the last presidential election was stolen. The book and articles regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop and the new documentary regarding ‘2000 Mules’ has convinced me.”
12. Do you see public corruption as a problem in Orange County? And what would you do to combat it?
Spitzer: “Orange County is not Los Angeles when it comes to public corruption, but that does not mean it never happens. When and if we do identify evidence of corruption, my office will never hesitate to act and will always hold those accountable with the full force of the law.”
Hardin: “Todd Spitzer is a 25-year career politician facing allegations of pay-to-play corruption, money laundering and more. As a first-time candidate, I bring a degree of independence the OCDA’s office hasn’t seen for decades. I will prosecute corruption and demonstrate that no one is above the law.”
Chehock: “Public corruption is a significant problem that actively erodes public confidence in the very institutions designed to serve the community. I would seek to reestablish the joint anti-corruption task force with the FBI and publicly encourage government employees and the public to submit all concerns to the OC Fraud Hotline.”
Jacobs: “Yes. I do see public corruption as a problem in Orange County. There have been claims made regarding corruption in the DA’s Office and other police agencies. The only viable solution is to have an independent agency conduct investigations. A problem here: the California Attorney General’s Office is basically worthless…” [Jacobs exceeded the 50 word limit]
13. Currently the OC sheriff refers more people to ICE than any other department in the state. Would you change that? Or do you support it?
Spitzer: “We should enforce our immigration laws and ensure dangerous criminals are turned over to ICE when appropriate.”
Hardin: “Building trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement is a public safety imperative. When local law enforcement engages in federal immigration enforcement, immigrant communities are less likely to report crimes and cooperate. Prosecutors must consider immigration consequences and I’ll encourage the Sheriff to abide by the Trust Act.”
Chehock: “State law specifically authorizes the Sheriff to transfer certain serious and serial offenders to ICE. In 2021, the Sheriff transferred 143 inmates (out of 199 with ICE detainers). While each individual transfer must be consistent with state law, I fully support removing dangerous individuals from the community.”
Jacobs: “I would not attempt to change the OC Sheriff’s practice in referring illegal immigrants to ICE. He is simply enforcing federal law. California immigration/sanctuary laws conflict with federal immigration laws. Under the Supremacy Clause, federal laws should prevail.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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