Thursday, February 14, 2008

Watch Travis County DA Candidate Forum Online

I just finished listening to a Travis County DA candidate forum held by the Austin chapter of ACLU and the Texas Moratorium Network, which Scott Cobb of TMN placed online over at Burnt Orange Report. (Isn't the internet a wonderful thing? I regretted missing the forum which took place about a half mile from my house, but Voila!, here it is!) Honestly, we're pretty lucky: From what I've seen, I'd be proud to have any of these Democratic candidates (there's no Republican running) represent me.

A couple of highlights: It was good news to me that all of the candidates supported expanding pretrial diversion for drug crimes and simply not prosecuting many of these cases. As mentioned recently, Travis County has the highest rate of pretrial detention for low-level offenses among large Texas counties - 24% of Travis County jail inmates are misdemeanants or state jail felons, compared to a statewide average of 10%.

Mindy Montford backed an idea for 24-hour ADA coverage to work more quickly process cases as they come in. I thought that was a good idea; the defense lawyers have to work all hours, the ADAs can do so, too! Seriously, processing cases faster at the front end of the process, particularly if we're going to expand pretrial diversion programs, is an important way to improve the system. That should be done no matter who wins the election.

Rick Reed got on my good side when he called for an "open file" policy at the DA's office. Reed also declared he would ask police to stop performing "consent searches" on Class C matters; they're disproportionately happening in poor and minority communities, he said. Long-time readers know I'm a big fan of that idea.

Candidates were asked about the recent study by the Justice Policy Institute that found that Travis County incarcerates black folks at 31 times the rate of whites. I was surprised to hear Rosemary Lehmberg, the long-time First Assistant to retiring incumbent Ronnie Earle, say that "police are making too many drug busts on one-rock cases." Gary Cobb suggested an idea from North Carolina where police videotape open-air drug dealers then intervene with their families combined with threats of prosecution to get them to stop.

Finally, on the question of the death penalty, Cobb asked the panelists whether they would support a moratorium on the death penalty in their office - not just while we're waiting for SCOTUS to decide Baze, but in general as a policy of the office. Only Rick Reed said he would do so; he declared when he was first hired as a prosecutor in Dallas he told them that he would be unwilling to prosecute such cases (he'd notify his supervisor, he promised, whenever it came up). He held that position, he said, because "regardless of advancements in technology there can always be human error throughout the process."

Rosemary Lehmberg replied that the death penalty now in Travis County is seldom used; Travis currently only has five defendants on death row. Lehmberg said she helped craft the current process for making capital punishment decisions which had become a national model, and recommended a Time magazine feature describing the process, "Guarding Death's Door."

Rick Reed's answers were probably the closest to my own opinions, and after watching the forum I'm probably leaning in his direction. But all four candidates had different things going for them. The whole video is a little more than 90 minutes long, so if like me you're still trying to figure out who you support, take the time to watch. And let me know what you think of the various candidates in the comments.

RELATED: See this string from the state prosecutors association debating the ethics of a candidate for DA declaring opposition to the death penalty.

UPDATE: Scott Cobb lets us know that there will be two more chances to watch these candidates debate. He has the details of a forum on Monday evening at the Dell Jewish Center, or you can watch a taped debate on Channel 8 or even on demand! Good for you, Time Warner Austin. Wrote Cobb:
You have three opportunities this weekend to watch a debate among the four Democratic Primary candidates for Travis County District Attorney on News 8 Austin. Here are the details from their website:
The debate will be on News 8 Saturday at 5 p.m., and twice on Sunday at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Also, beginning this weekend you can catch the debate at your convenience on News 8-on-Demand on Time Warner Cable Channel 1408.

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