Lara Gressley Brings the Fight for Equal Justice to Riverside County’s Race for District Attorney
S.E. Williams Contributor
Cries for criminal justice reform have echoed across the land and bi-partisan efforts are underway at the federal level to bring equity to a system many agree is awry.
In addition to federal level discussions, the Harvard Law Review reminded us, “It is at the state and local level where reform will be implemented.”
Appellate lawyer Lara Gressley, an attorney with Bartell, Hensel & Gressley in Riverside, understands the need for change and has stepped forward to challenge Mike Hestrin for the privilege of serving Riverside County as District Attorney.
On June 5, according to Gressley, local voters will have their only opportunity this election cycle to place Riverside County at the forefront of criminal justice reform. Their votes will determine whether the Riverside will continue to operate in alignment with what some consider outdated norms and theories regarding the administration of criminal justice; or elect instead, to ride the current of change commiserate with the county’s changing demographics by electing a district attorney with a new vision for criminal justice that Gressley said will be rooted in fairness.
A seasoned trial lawyer, Gressley is widely recognized as one of the preeminent criminal appellate attorneys in California. She has written appellate briefs in the California Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court, and in the United States Supreme Court. As an appellate attorney, Gressley is intimately familiar with the challenging issues inherent in the criminal justice system.
During an exclusive interview with The Voice, Gressley shared tidbits related to her upbringing in Northern California and quipped about how the challenges she faced fighting for fairness as the youngest among six siblings sparked her passion for justice.
Gressley was motivated to enter the race for District Attorney because of her deep seeded passion for justice. She understands the injustices inherent in mass incarceration. She stressed it should not happen to begin with and acknowledged that as a nation, we’ve become accustomed to it. “Enough is enough,” she proclaimed. “Nothing is ever going to change,” she stressed, “unless we start the process for reform.”
Gressley’s supporters point to the onslaught of negative headlines related to inequities in criminal justice in Riverside County whether they involved the District Attorney’s Office directly, the Sherriff’s Department or members of the judiciary—the county’s criminal justice triad has a long and blemished history.
Although the leadership at the District Attorney’s office has changed over the years, the mindset appears systemic. Consider the following newspaper headlines:
U.S. judges see ‘epidemic’ of prosecutorial misconduct in state; Counties That Send The Most People To Death Row Show A Questionable Commitment To Justice; Riverside ‘prosecutor of year’ had San Diego DUI; Prosecutor misconduct taints convictions in Southern California courts, study says; Dozens of convictions tossed out of Southern California courts because of prosecutors’ bad behavior.
Gressley shared she is also familiar with the frustrations currently percolating among prosecutors in Riverside County’s District Attorney’s office. As Hestrin’s only opponent, she also has the advantage of not being part of the deeply rooted ‘good ol’ boys’ network that has controlled criminal justice in the county for generations. “I’m not beholden to anyone,” she affirmed, “I’m not part of the culture.”
She added, “I’m not corrupted. I’m going to do what is right.” As District Attorney, Gressley committed to fight for people who have never had a voice in the county, “Every single person.”
According to the 2010 Census, Riverside County is the fourth most populous county in California, the eleventh most populous in the nation and in recent years, crossed the threshold to become a majority-minority community. It’s no secret the criminal justice system in America is replete with racial and ethnic disparities and those disparities are evident in municipal justice systems across the nation—Riverside County is no exception.
Gressley made it clear it does not have to be that way. “We have the freedom to do what is right,” she declared. “I believe in hope and change. A district attorney should be an advocate for change.”
Gressley further stressed the importance of mindful prosecution and admitted she is an advocate for a holistic approach to criminal justice reform. Issues related to mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, reform of the cash bail system, the design and implementation of a successful reentry program, public safety and fiscal accountability require an inclusive approach to change that seeks common ground. Gressley is convinced successful change can be attained when it as she described, “rooted in data driven methods based on evidence.”
One example of how such an approach to solutions can are not only essential fairness but are also economically prudent. When you consider reform in relation to Hestrin’s penchant for the application of the death penalty.
Despite Hestrin’s protestation that he does not seek the death penalty “willy-nilly,” at least twice in the last three years, Riverside County has produced more new death row inmates than any other county in the nation. In 2017 alone, Riverside County was responsible for nearly 30 percent of all death penalty cases in the nation. Five of the state’s death sentences last year, were rendered in Riverside—far outpacing any other county. Hestrin’s decision to seek the death penalty for those accused in these cases raised added concerns about fairness—four of the accused were Hispanic men and one was an African American female.
Like so many others in the county, state and nation, Gressley has challenged Hestrin’s judgement in this regard. To begin with, not a single California inmate has been put to death since 2006, and Riverside County has not facilitated an execution in at least 39 years—the last occurred in 1978. From a fiscal perspective, “It costs tax payers approximately $120 million dollars a year to house death row inmates,” Gressley explained.
A study conducted by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula M. Mitchell estimated that capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for capital defendants add $184 million to California’s budget every year. The study further noted the state’s death row prisoners cost taxpayers $184 million more per year than those sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Tax payers might also be interested to learn that death penalty prosecutions cost up to 20 times as much as a life-without-parole case and that the least expensive death penalty trial costs $1.1 million more than the most expensive life-without-parole case.
Also, jury selection in a capital case runs three to four weeks longer and costs $200,000 more than in life-without-parole cases. Finally, according to the report, the heightened security practices mandated for death row inmates added $100,663 to the cost of incarcerating each capital prisoner last year—this alone totaled $72 million.
Gressley is hopeful Riverside voters will consider Hestrin’s aggressive use of the death penalty and what it is costing them as taxpayers when they cast their ballots in June.
Although Riverside voters roundly defeated Proposition 62 that called for an end to the death penalty in 2016, demographics in the community have continued to change and, in the process, transformed Riverside County from the Republican bastion of “tough on crime conservatism” it was just a couple of short years ago.
The County has ‘changed’ and Gressley may be the criminal justice ‘changer’ the region desires at this time. In recent years, insurgent candidates like Gressley are being swept into office around the nation. Consider the surprise election of District Attorney Scott Colom in Mississippi in November, 2015; or the 2016 election of District Attorney Mark Gonzalez in Corpus Cristi, Texas; or, the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, PA last November; and finally, the candidacy of Geneviéve Jones-Wright for District Attorney in San Diego.
Whether it’s Hestrin’s tough on crime approach to the death penalty or his advocacy in favor of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the Indio jail that the Sheriff Department has admitted it cannot afford to staff, Gressley reminded voters that this election cycle they will only have one opportunity to vote for a new direction in criminal justice in Riverside County.