S. E. Williams
Mike Hestrin is facing a challenge in his quest to secure a second term as Riverside County District Attorney.
Earlier this month, The Voice featured an in- depth interview with Hestrin’s challenger, Lara Gressley, an appellate attorney who served as a deputy public defender for more than ten years. Gressley has not been shy in her criticism of Hestrin’s performance as District Attorney.
Initially elected in 2014, Hestrin said he deserves to be re-elected because, “I brought a stability to the D.A.’s office, we’d had years of instability. Right now,” he continued, “we are in a very good place, we are united as an office and the deputy D.A.’s are behind me. We have a great relationship with the courts and things are running very smoothly.”
Hestrin unseated longtime District Attorney Paul Zellerbach to secure his post. Previous to his election, according to Hestrin, the Riverside D.A.’s office was riddled with controversy.
“I’ve brought in a lot of changes from the past and they are having really great success.” He pointed to his implementation of new programs to go after gangs. “At the same time,” he added, “we’ve implemented other programs like crime prevention and collaborative courts. They are being very successful as well.”
He then qualified those statements with these comments. “When I say they’ve been successful, remember it’s only been 3 ½ years since I became D.A. Some of the programs and initiatives are doing well, and in the next three to four years, they will be very successful,” he concluded.
Under his stewardship, the Riverside County District Attorney’s office is managing several high-profile cases including the Turpin case in Perris, the La Quinta child murder case that resulted in a new trial for the accused, Patricia Brown, and the Pinon Pines triple murder trial involving Cristin Smith and Robert Pape. Hestrin credits the office’s ability to handle them without anything falling through the cracks to what he described as his “great assistants.”
“I put in place an outstanding team. I’m surrounded by very smart and capable managers and assistant D.A.’s. I am very fortunate in that regard.” He noted how some members of the team came up through the ranks while others were brought in from other D.A. offices.
The Riverside D.A.’s office handles about 60,000 criminal cases per year and in what Hestrin described as an enormous D.A.’s office—one of the largest in the country. “When you think about what we cover and how many cases we handle, it makes sense that we have 700 employees and 250 lawyers. It’s a large, large operation.” Hestrin admitted it took him a bit to get used to it.
“I went from [being] one of those trial attorneys that was handling my cases to [becoming] the boss and administrator of all of it.” He said although he had a lot to learn over the last three to four years, “We are handling it and you haven’t heard of a lot of things falling through the cracks. Things are going well.”
When asked to explain where he stands on the issue of criminal justice reform, Hestrin first talked about what he perceives as an organized effort to unseat him and others. “So- called reformers are running against sitting D.A.’s around the state and the country,” he began. “I don’t think the so-called reformers are offering reform.” He continued, “I think I’m a reformer that will actually reform the system and get things changed for the better.”
According to Hestrin, if a reformer took office, there would be a backlash because the District Attorney must work with multiple police agencies. “There is a right way to do reforms. I think in the criminal justice system there is always room for improvement and I consider myself a reformer.”
Hestrin continued, “I’ve made reforms to the way we do things here in Riverside and some of those reforms have been unbelievably successful. I go out and talk about them in the community.” He also emphasized how the Riverside District Attorney’s office has focused on crime prevention.
When asked for his position on reforming the cash bail system, Hestrin said he is not opposed to making changes to it but stressed the devil is in the details. He cited for example, an early version of legislation considered by state legislators that, as it was initially designed, took away a lot of power from judges regarding who they may think should stay in jail and who should be released. Hestrin said judges should be allowed some discretion in this regard based on their experience.
Hestrin also responded to criticism regarding the number of death penalty convictions in Riverside and stressed although he supports its use, he believes it should be reserved for what he described as, “the worst of the worst.” He cited cases that involved multiple victims, or in which the act of violence was so heinous, as examples of the types of cases in which he would consider the death penalty.
Regarding another controversial issue Hestrin continues to support—the Indio jail, Hestrin said he stands firm in his support of the facility. He stated the county needs it to relieve over-crowding, but also acknowledged there is no money to staff it. Yet, he expressed confidence the Board of Supervisors will eventually find the money needed to get it staffed and opened.
One of the success stories Hestrin is most proud of is the work his office is doing to help reduce juvenile arrests. “Juveniles are treated differently,” he said, “because they are young and because we want to get them out of the system not further into the system. In the last four years, the number of crimes we’ve filed against juveniles has dropped 46 percent,” he proclaimed.
Hestrin pointed to his organization’s collaboration with the juvenile probation chief and his team. “I am certainly not taking all the credit because there is such great work that everybody else is doing. Partnering with probation on these programs has made a huge difference,” he acknowledged. “I’m really proud of that—that we file criminal charges on a whole lot less kids than we used to.”
Under Hestrin’s leadership, the D.A.’s office also established a literacy-based program in juvenile hall called, Real Men Read. “We reach kids that way,” he said.
According to Hestrin, 92 percent of people in prison are high school drop-outs. “It is an unbelievably high number and it is also estimated that up to 70 percent of people in prison are functionally illiterate. They read at or below the 4h grade level.” According to Hestrin, this motivated one of the D.A.’s to suggest the department implement the literacy program.
“The juveniles love it and we have spread the program to all the juvenile halls across the county. Now, we are extending it to the youth opportunity program and involving kids that may just be having a little bit of trouble.” he explained.
“The issue of juveniles committing crime is a real issue for the community, but I think they [the community] should know their D.A.’ s office is committed to reducing the number of times we have to file charges against a juvenile and the things that we are doing are really working.”
Hestrin also noted how his organization has achieved success with several collaborative courts including courts for the homeless, for drug and alcohol abusers and for those experiencing mental health challenges. “These courts are designed for people already in the criminal justice system,” he explained. “We work hard to get them out.”
In closing, Hestrin was asked to comment on allegations that some in the D.A.’s office are unhappy with the way things are managed and that morale is low. “It’s a huge office,” he replied. “I’ve got 250 lawyers and in running such a large organization it is inevitable. You’ll never have 100 percent agreement, especially with lawyers. They can’t agree on where to go to lunch,” he said jokingly. “You have strong opinions and so forth.”
According to Hestrin, he was endorsed in his bid for re-election by 92 percent of those in the Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Association. He shared how the President of the Association, Jon Brandon, sent a letter to another publication responding to allegations related to employee morale. “It was never printed,” he said adding, I cannot put policies in place that will please everyone,”
John Brandon provided a copy of his letter to in support of Hestrin to accompany this article. An excerpt is included here for your consideration followed by a response from Lara Gressley.
Ms. Gressley claimed, “she’s noticed low morale among deputy prosecutors” and “she wants to see deputy district attorneys passionate about what they do.” These statements are misleading, uninformed and fail to take into account larger issues afoot.
First, the climate in which prosecutors’ work has been made exceedingly more difficult in the last 7 years due to the enactment of new laws that are seemingly more concerned with easing prison overcrowding than keeping the citizens of California safe. With laws like AB109 (certain crimes made ineligible for prison), Proposition 47 (reduced penalties for certain crimes) and Proposition 57 (relaxed parole considerations and changes in juvenile prosecution), prosecutors are left swimming against the current. Since the passage of these laws, there has been a steady increase in crime and recidivism throughout the state, and in Riverside County specifically. This increase has resulted in dramatically higher caseloads among deputy district attorneys and a drain on resources in our office that is felt at every level.
Second, consistent with the current trend in California, the California State Bar has been on a largely unwarranted and overbroad crusade to attack the ethics and integrity of many hard-working prosecutors by initiating administrative proceedings. Prosecutors must then defend themselves to a body that has little to no oversight or accountability. Additionally, these proceedings have the very real possibility of leading to the filing of felony criminal charges under yet another new law.
Yet, despite this conspicuous shift, it is against this backdrop that deputy district attorneys in Riverside County have maintained a 94% conviction rate – the highest in the state. That isn’t achieved through a lack of passion or low morale; that is only achieved through a work ethic, work product and commitment to justice that is unmatched in the state.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin shares RCDDAA’s concerns and has been an outspoken critic of these laws and their predictable consequences. RCDDAA stands with District Attorney Mike Hestrin in his unwavering dedication to the people of Riverside County. This continuing partnership is demonstrated by RCDDAA members voting to endorse Mr. Hestrin’s re-election bid in excess of 90%. Furthermore, this week RCDDAA contributed $25, 000 to Mr. Hestrin’s campaign in direct response to Ms. Gressley’s announcement of her candidacy and implication that our members have low morale due to Mr. Hestrin’s leadership. That is simply not true.
Thank you very much for your time and I hope this sentiment finds the voters of Riverside County.
President of RCDDAA
Candidate for Riverside County District Attorney, Appellate Attorney Lara Gressley, responds to letter from Jon Brandon, President of the Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Association
“Despite Mr. Brandon’s comments, my statements about low morale are not misleading or uninformed. Rather, my statements are based on my own personal observations and those observations of several other defense attorneys. My claims about low morale are also based on multiple statements from numerous deputy prosecutors within the office.
The complaints I have heard from those within the office include micro-management, pressure to do trials where not necessary, auditing of all plea agreements, and a general lack of respect, training, and teamwork.
Other complaints came from those terminated, including a 30-year employee fired without any real explanation, and a federal civil rights lawsuit pending against Hestrin, the office, and the County for claimed civil rights violations in terminating a deputy prosecutor without cause.
Another experienced deputy prosecutor was put on leave recently because the supervisor did not like his negotiated settlement in a case. In yet another recent report, an experienced and respected deputy prosecutor being walked out of the office by IA.
The causes of the low morale according to my multiple sources are these events, and not AB109, Prop 47, Prop 57, or the recently enacted State Bar regulations that hold prosecutors responsible for misconduct. (The latter of which was likely in part a response to a federal appellate judge’s comments in 2015 regarding the Baca case out of Riverside County. The judge stated that the prosecutorial misconduct that had occurred in the murder case was representative of an “epidemic.” The 9th circuit was very vocal about their discontent with the fact that lies by prosecutors went uncontrolled in the Riverside County DA’s Office.)
What Mr. Brandon’s letter does confirm is that Mr. Hestrin has opposed all criminal justice reform measures and continues to do so. That should put to rest the claim he has recently made that he is somehow a “reformer.”
The letter also boasts about a “94 percent conviction rate,” the majority of which I understand has resulted from plea bargaining. But the overcharging that has gone on in that office continues to occur. That overcharging extracts early guilty pleas, and in my opinion, has been one of the biggest contributors to the jail and prison overcrowding problem.
Finally, I will only add that Hestrin was endorsed by the RCDDAA last July, long before I announced my candidacy or even decided to run for office. After I filed my Statement of Intent this year, I was contacted by a RCDDAA board member who asked if I wanted to address the union. I responded that I would like to, but never heard back. A few weeks later, I was informed that Jon Brandon would not allow me to address the union. I do not know whether that statement is true, but I will say that I never had the opportunity to address the union.