Story By Rory O’Sullivan
Photos by R Bruce Montgomery
Armed with a Juris Doctorate and a Master’s Degree in Latin American studies from Stanford University and seasoned by two decades of prosecuting some of this county’s toughest cases, Coachella-born Michael “Mike” Hestrin has the academic background, local knowledge, and visionary leadership to serve the people of this region well.
In 1997 after graduation, Hestrin volunteered as a law clerk with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. Little did he know that his spirit of volunteerism, commitment, dedication, and civic engagement would be noticed. But in fact it was when then-District Attorney Grover Trask hired him to serve as a Deputy District Attorney one year later.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Now fast forward to 2015, when at the beginning of the year, Hestrin was sworn in as Riverside County’s newest District Attorney, an elected position.
Hestrin himself has seen his dedication to the region, his commitment to an equitable judicial system, and his love of community bear the fruits of community trust; enough so that during the June 2014 election, the community cast their vote in his favor.
Eight months into his position, Hestrin says that he wants to focus on crime prevention, give a sense of stability to the office and restore the type of prosecutorial integrity his mentor, Trask instilled in the department when he started in 1997. And now as the DA, he has that opportunity.
“This is the only job I’ve ever had,” states DA Hestrin. “I’m really focused on turning this place around.”
Hestrin said he wants the office to become the best in California and everyone in his office will be honest, fair, and tough on crime with integrity.
“Our reputation is important, if we can’t say to the public this is a safe place to raise your family a lot of our efforts we do are for nothing.”
Hestrin has spent the first six months of this year reaching out to communities most affected by gangs and crime, letting them know his office will do whatever it takes to give them a safe community to live in.
“Where I differ from my predecessor is I believe in crime prevention. We have to get to (children) before the gangs do.”
Hestrin has increased the number of gang prevention classes offered around the county, teaching parents how to keep their children out of gangs. He helped start Real Men Read, to increase literacy skills, using volunteers from the DA’s office. He is the first DA to make crime prevention part of his mandate and said he will continue to push his office to be active members in their communities so residents don’t just see them prosecuting people.
“We’re not just there to put people behind bars, which we do, but to also help turn people away from crime. That’s how you reduce the crime rate.”
But he will be prosecuting criminals to the fullest extent of the law. He said the previous administration took the pressure off of gangs. When he first started working for the DA’s office there were 15 gang intelligence detectives in Riverside County, that number dropped to two last year and he has since increased the number of detectives by two. He said a lack of focus led to an increase in the crime stats released in the first six months.
“The first quarter numbers are in. Unfortunately it shows a pretty significant uptick in crime. Especially property crime.”
Hestrin said crime is also going up because of legislative changes like AB 109, the U.S. Supreme Court Order to reduce the state’s prison population, and Proposition 47 which reduced the majority of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, which he says has tied his office’s hands.
“If you say to them spend two weeks in jail or be in a year long drug treatment program they take the jail.”
Hestrin also faces an uphill battle with funding. County revenues are still lagging years after the great recession and there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to increase taxes.
Hestrin said his office will begin funding alternative sentencing programs and will begin seeking grants to fund them.
Former Superior Court Judge Christian Thierbach, who has known Hestrin since he first started practicing law, thinks he has what it takes to keep Riverside County safe.
“He has always been focused even as a young lawyer,” said Thierbach. “He’ll go as far as he chooses to go.”
His knowledge of the Inland Empire region serves him well as Thierbach sees Hestrin as the type of DA who will work well with everyday people while helping reduce the crime rate. But Hestrin’s belief is to get out of the court, get out of the office, and get to know the people he represents, in good times and bad. Speaking at engagements throughout Riverside County from candlelight vigils to meetings for local groups and organizations, Hestrin’s desire is to be that proactive, community-engaged DA. “They need to hear from their DA,” he said.
Hestrin was born in the Coachella Valley and completed his legal studies at Stanford University. He has completed more than 100 jury trials since starting his career in 1997 including the Homicide Unit where he conducted more than 30 murder trials.
In 1999, he was named Riverside County’s Misdemeanor Prosecutor of the Year. The following year he was recognized as Riverside County’s Felony Prosecutor of the Year. In 2003, 2005, and again in 2010, he was named Countywide Prosecutor of the Year. Hestrin was chosen by the legal publication, The Daily Journal, as one of 2008’s Top Twenty Lawyers Under Forty in California. In 2009, he was honored as the Statewide Prosecutor of the Year by the California District Attorney Investigators Association. In 2010, the California District Attorneys Association recognized him as one of California’s Outstanding Prosecutors.
Hestrin comes from a long line of civically engaged family members. His father, Jerry Hestrin, served in the Vietnam War and later patrolled the streets of Riverside County as a police officer. His father also worked as private security for Frank Sinatra before becoming the first school resource officer in the Palm Springs Police Department history.
His mother moved to Palm Springs from Mexico in her teens. She would later become a state social worker who devoted her career to working with abandoned and abused children. She became an expert in the field and began testifying in child custody proceedings on behalf of the state. His grandfather, Michael Hestrin Sr., a longtime resident of Hemet, served his country in the Pacific theatre during World War II and is buried at Riverside National Cemetery.
Hestrin always thinks of his parents before making any judgment. He aims to always be tough on crime like his father but remembers his mother’s teachings of where her family came from and to not leave any community behind. “I’m not throwing the book at everyone. I don’t want the community to have a them versus us mentality.”
Hestrin currently lives in Temecula with his wife. They attend mass and are active members of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta Catholic Church.