Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and veteran prosecutor Mike Hestrin clashed Friday in their first public debate in the D.A.'s race, with the challenger alleging his boss has caused the agency's morale to "crater" and put public safety at risk with compromising policies, while the incumbent touted his experience and success in clearing a years-long backlog of criminal cases.
"I have always sought true justice, to punish those who commit crime, and to prevent crime in the first place," Zellerbach told more than 250 people gathered at the Riverside County Bar Association in downtown Riverside. "This county needs experience and leadership for the future."
Hestrin said he "loved" the D.A.'s office and its mission and was appalled by changes that had taken place since Zellerbach assumed control in January 2011.
"We've lost something," Hestrin said. "We've become ineffective. We've been let down by Mr. Zellerbach. The public deserves a D.A. they can trust and (who) will not cut corners. It matters who's in charge."
The debate covered a range of issues, from state public safety realignment -- under which many convicts are sentenced to jail instead of prison, and county probation officers are required to act as parole agents -- to deterring and punishing gang-related crimes.
Hestrin called the incumbent out on several points, including a recent mailer in which Zellerbach's campaign indicated conviction rates had reached 81 percent since he took office -- compared to 40 percent under his predecessor.
"I'm dismayed by this lack of credibility," Hestrin said. "We need a D.A. who is honest and genuine in his arguments."
According to figures supplied by the Judicial Council of California, in the fiscal year before Zellerbach took office, 2009-10, the overall conviction rate was 86.4 percent, while in 2011-12 -- the most recent stats available -- the rate was 84 percent in Riverside County.
Zellerbach did not respond directly to the allegation, instead noting that when he became D.A., the local judicial system was in "chaos" as a result of predecessor Rod Pacheco's no-plea-bargains policy, creating a backlog of upwards of 500 untried felony cases.
– By Paul J. Young, City News Service.