In the Race for Contra Costa DA, Finally a Focus on the Law 

Candidates try to move beyond the messy distractions of the Gressett case.

After a steady succession of public embarrassments, the Contra Costa County District Attorneys Office has been eerily quiet in recent weeks. In other words, no deputy district attorneys appear to have been charged with rape, recruited into office sex clubs, involved in fistfights, or caught cutting secret deals with prostitutes and violent criminals. But while the office's salacious goings on have ebbed, a more serious problem has come to the fore — the specter of bone-deep budget cuts. Both candidates for district attorney have been putting forward ideas designed to allow the office to continue prosecuting crime despite dwindling resources.

The race is between 25-year prosecutor Mark Peterson, who has served on the Concord City Council since 1995, and criminal defense attorney Dan O'Malley, a former deputy district attorney and former county judge. During several debates, the two men have had heated exchanges over who is the greater insider and who is more closely associated with a highly publicized rape case involving two deputy district attorneys. But they also have had constructive discussions about how to reorganize an office that has been operating in the looming shadow of budget cuts.

Like their would-be counterparts throughout the country, Contra Costa County's new DA will have to make tough financial decisions. The county is facing some of the most severe cuts in its history and the already-strapped DA's office will have to find a way to manage with an estimated $2 million less than last year's lean budget of $29 million. Already, the ranks of the DA's office have been reduced from 105 to 85, and budget cuts will likely mean even fewer prosecutors.

The dire budget situation was illustrated in April 2009 when current District Attorney Bob Kochly announced he would stop prosecuting felony possession of small amounts of narcotics such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and OxyContin. Kochly also said that proposed budget cuts would preclude prosecution of most misdemeanors such as vandalism, trespassing, shoplifting, and violation of minor traffic laws. Public outrage with this proposal spurred the Board of Supervisors to use sales tax revenue to close a proposed $4 million gap in the DA's budget.

The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office has one of the highest conviction rates in the state while its prosecutors are among the lowest paid. How the new budget cuts will affect the office's performance — particularly in Richmond, where 32 percent of the county's violent crime occurs — will depend on the experience and creativity of the new DA.

And both candidates have been proposing possible solutions. O'Malley suggests that some economic pressure can be taken off the DA's office by forming volunteer community courts to handle misdemeanors. The courts would handle cases such as vandalism and shoplifting in which the defendants would pay an administration fee and work off their penalties. Police and other witnesses would testify as they do in regular court. "Suspects will still have to suffer some kind of penalty, but they will have an opportunity to avoid criminal charges," O'Malley said. "For example, a kid caught spray painting graffiti would have to spend a couple of days painting for the city. It would be a win for everybody."

O'Malley also suggested that the DA's office could save some money by expecting city police detectives to work for their office as investigators, subpoena servers, and to help track down witnesses in exchange for the time prosecutors now spend in police departments, which strengthens cases.

His opponent said that these ideas are creative, but unworkable. Peterson takes a different approach, subscribing to the so-called "broken window" theory, which holds that major crimes can be prevented by maintaining an orderly environment. The idea is that if a car is abandoned on a street soon it will be vandalized, which gives the block a sense of lawlessness that in turn breeds a succession of more serious crimes such as loitering, property damage, drug dealing, and robbery. "There is no way I would not prosecute misdemeanors," he said. "It's one of the best preventative measures we have at our disposal."

Peterson said that if he wins, the first thing he would do is review how money is currently allocated throughout the office. "All of our programs need to be reviewed to see if we are using our resources wisely," he said. "Our biggest expense is salaries, and it may be that we have to shift attorneys to divisions where they can be more effective, for example putting more deputies in juvenile, more deputies in misdemeanors, homicide, etc."

He also said that he would try to save money by redoubling crime-prevention efforts. He is interested in the anti-truancy model used by San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, which was successful in reducing truancy by 23 percent and increasing the school district's budget by $300,000. "If we can do something like that in the western part of the county, it would be good for everybody. It would keep kids out of the criminal-justice system, it would save the DA's office money, and it would increase the school district's budget."

Gang injunctions are another preventative measure that Peterson wants to explore. Injunctions reduce crime by not allowing identified gang members to associate, which greatly reduces gang activity. Injunctions are typically controversial, but they have been effective in reducing gang crime in San Francisco, Long Beach, and Los Angeles.

Both candidates also have had to address the office's public relations problems. Had the Contra Costa County District Attorney's office been a frat house during the last five years, it would have lost its charter and had its membership banned from all social functions. The rape charges against longtime Deputy District Attorney Michael Gressett exposed a highly charged sexual culture throughout the office. Sex talk was a major pastime, and deputy district attorneys, many of them women, openly bragged of extramarital affairs, rough sex, and membership in a so-called "backdoor" club, which was founded by two senior female deputy district attorneys.

The sophomoric behavior rose to the highest levels of the office. Assistant Chief District Attorney Paul Sequeira, the office's third in command, was involved in a campaign-related fistfight with the head of the homicide division. One member of the District Attorneys Association who openly supported Peterson's campaign says he was physically intimidated during a "brownbag" lunch meeting. But worst of all was the revelation that Sequeira and Chief District Attorney Brian Baker, the second in command, cut a secret deal with a prostitute. In exchange for a damaging statement of sexual misconduct against Gressett, the DA's top brass agreed to release her boyfriend, who was in jail awaiting a preliminary hearing on charges that he beat a man with a sledgehammer. The prostitute later claimed that she lied about Gressett, but not before her boyfriend was involved in a botched home-invasion robbery during which he repeatedly fired a handgun.

Both candidates have promised a major shakeup in the office's management policies. "We're coming in to change that place," O'Malley said. "It will be turned upside down."

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