On March 10, The Yolo County Taxpayers Association — a non-partisan, nonprofit citizen association — hosted a public forum to introduce candidates competing in the June 7 primary election for Yolo County district attorney.
Incumbent Jeff Reisig and challenger Cynthia Rodriguez faced off for their first of a number of public debates. After introductions each candidate delivered an opening statement.
Rodriguez, a resident of Winters, outlined her qualifying experience gained working as a practicing attorney for 40 years. From prosecuting prison correctional officers and prison staff for misconduct to working as a public defender and then as chief counsel for the California Department of Mental Health, Rodriguez said she’s held positions during her career that all relate to the complex criminal justice system.
If elected, Rodriguez said she would listen to people, keep the county safe, maintain a budget and bring integrity to Yolo County. Homelessness and drug addiction are problems that need attention and short-term jail sentences are not resolving the county’s problems, she said.
Reisig, who is seeking his fifth term as district attorney, has spent all but one of his 26-year legal career with the office of the Yolo County District Attorney.
“Who” the district attorney is matters in terms of what cases get prosecuted, Reisig said and offered that over the last 16 years he has worked to lead the office in a “balanced way.” “Yeah, I’m tough, but I’m also fair,” he said.
Overall, questions from the audience pertained to and sought the candidates’ positions and plans to address homelessness, addiction, crime and racial bias transparency.
Rodriguez: “There are many communities, especially on the west coast who have been able to have successful programs to move people off the streets and get them stabilized so they can then begin to receive services to live a more comfortable life.”
“None of these programs will solve everybody’s problems. We will always have outliers,” she said and stressed that a difference can be made if the homeless are given assistance that experts have shown to be effective.
Reisig: “What I have seen both professionally and personally is the vast population of the homeless suffer from an illness — mental illness or addiction. They need help, they need treatment.”
Reisig shared the story of his nephew who is homeless, has been addicted to heroin for nine years and who steals daily to support his habit.
“We don’t need to send these people to jail or prison for being homeless, that’s not the answer.” Reisig then directed audience members to his website to read his five-point plan addressing homelessness. “Go to my website. The first part of this plan is about treatment.”
Petty Theft, Prop. 47
In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 that reduced certain nonviolent offenses, like simple possession, from a felony to a misdemeanor. It also raised the petty theft threshold for a misdemeanor charge from $500 to $950.
Reisig said Prop. 47 was well-intentioned, but added, “we can’t continue to allow people to use, steal and live on the streets.”
“It doesn’t mean we have to send them to prison, but it does mean there has to be some accountability for this type of conduct.
“As long as it’s under $950, nobody is going to jail because the law says that those people get a ticket. That is a broken law. Let’s be honest, this law is not working.”
Rodriguez: “The law needs to be enforced. Interestingly enough, we have our district attorney here telling us he has been in charge for 16 years and yet these crimes are increasing. I think that’s a problem.”
Rodriguez said that Yolo County’s threshold of $950 is lower than about 40 states.
“I don’t think that’s the real issue. We have prosecutorial tools that should be put to the test,” Rodriguez said.
Transparency and racial bias
Two years ago, Reisig said he contacted Measures to Justice, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization out of Rochester New York and gave them full access to all the data and asked them to create a portal for public access of data.
“I believe in government transparency and people need to be able to look at it themselves, because I don’t trust the government, and if I put it out why would they trust me necessarily?” Reisig asked, adding that his office is using that data to drive policy and see how they can adjust it to address disparities. “It’s a powerful tool and a gamechanger.”
Rodriguez: “So, for the first time in 15 years, we finally have information listed, that we can see some statistics. The problem with that is we have always deserved to see what our taxpayer dollars were being spent on and what was happening with the result of how they were being spent, and we have not until now seen that.”
“We have to have analysis, which we do not. What we have are dry statistics, basically what Will Rogers said, ‘there are lies, damn lies and statistics’,” Rodriguez said. “What is going on that we would have such a racial imbalance in our system. It is simply unexplained.”
“I want to make all the information available to you from day one, to update it regularly and explain to you what we’re going to do about the things that are problematic.”
What would you do differently?
Rodriguez: From day one she said would set out to increase the number of available programs like diversion and arrange homeless shelters, make fair offers to defendants and not overcharge crimes, something she accused Reisig of doing.
Reisig: Urging Rodriguez to do her homework, he said the things she is talking about are things he has already done and touted his mental health, addiction intervention and diversion programs.
Rodriguez: “I’ve worked at very high levels at the state and county and I’ve seen programs that aren’t here that work well and there’s no good reason we don’t have them. I want to speak with you all, as I said. I’m happy to give out my phone number tonight for anyone to call me to share their ideas.
“I expect all my relationships to be professional. I don’t expect them to be personal. I expect we’re all working together for this county for the same goals, for your safety, for your future and for your family and the community’s future because that is what this is about, making a safe and wholesome and healthy life here in this wonderful county Yolo,” Rodriguez said.
“You can look at the numbers actually, they’re transparent and on our website at yoloda.org. Thousands of people have gone through our programs. With all due respect, I don’t think Ms. Rodriguez has any idea what we’ve been doing in Yolo County in the DA’s office and Yolo County,” Reisig said.
“I pride myself on being a balanced traditional prosecutor with a deep streak of innovation and reform. That’s what I’ve done. Do your homework … and I think what you’ll find is that Yolo County is actually doing just fine,” he added.
The candidates will face off again on April 27 for another non-partisan forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters Davis Area and the Woodland League of Women Voters.
The event will run from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Woodland Community Center, 2001 East St. in Woodland.