Lara Gressley, a criminal defense attorney, wants to replace Michael Hestrin as the Riverside County district attorney. If she succeeds, it will be third-consecutive election where the challenger unseats the incumbent DA.
Gressley did not announce her candidacy until January, but she does not believe the late start will affect her goal.
During her 16-year legal career, she has worked in the county’s counsel office and served as a public defender, and is now a trial and appellate private defense attorney.
Simple principles have guided her career. “I always look at things holistically. I’ve always wanted justice accomplished. I’m proud I care about every aspect of the case — not just my client, but the victim and the community,” she said.
“I always speak my truth and do not compromise authenticity for approval,” she added, as she explained her motivation for seeking the position.
“I finally realized the truth. The way to serve the community was to get in a position of power to make a difference,” she said. “The current administration is focused on high conviction rates and does not seek justice.”
For Gressley, justice is more than simply incarcerating a criminal. The crime can reverberate through the community and affect several lives. Consequently, as DA, she would put equal effort into using alternative sentences to jail time.
Using bail to ensure incarceration before trial is an example of an issue Gressley believes should be reconsidered. She is not advocating release of all individuals charged with felonies and awaiting trial, but is concerned that bail amounts become economic discrimination.
Wealthy individuals can be released on bail while poor, and often minority, defendants must await trial in jail. They lose income, which can affect their families, and they can lose jobs and more.
She recognizes that the Legislature passes the laws on bail criterion and judges set the bail amounts, but the prosecutors are the individuals who actively seek and use bail. She wants to apply different analyses and believes there are alternative methods to arrive at the same goal — the defendant appearing in court.
“Is cash bail really the cause to ensure defendants appear in court?” she asked.
Further, she offers that using bail to keep individuals in jail exacerbates the current shortage of jail space. Consequently, some convicted criminals get released to make room for new defendants.
She said 60 percent of the current Riverside County inmates are awaiting trial, not yet convicted, and serving their sentence.
“The cost to the taxpayers is more than $200 daily,” she commented. “We need to realistically look at what’s smart. Right is also smart.”
If elected, she would place more emphasis on a public-integrity unit. “Public officials, especially elected officials, who go unindicted, breaks down trust of the community,” she said. “Everyone in Riverside County who commits a crime must be held accountable. If not, a discussion with the community as district attorney about the reasons is necessary. This discussion is not happening.”
Another concern of Gressley’s is her belief that Riverside prosecutors work in a culture of “win at all costs.” She referred to a recent Harvard study about fair punishment and the number of convictions in Southern California overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct.
While the study focused on Orange County, a number of cases in Riverside County also were identified, including two in the Coachella Valley. She finds it unfortunate that the current DA administration has not repudiated these issues.
She attributes the persistence of the culture on the lack of adequate ethics in the DA offices. She said staff within the office also shares this opinion.
Consequently, she dismisses the RC Deputy District Attorneys Association’s endorsement of Hestrin. “They endorsed him in July, when there were no other choices,” she noted. “They didn’t hear me talk.” Then she repeated that she only entered the race in January 2018, six months later.
Her goals as DA include an end to massive incarceration, looking at issues and cases holistically to bring down both the crime rate and recidivism, punishing violent offenders and giving others a second chance.
“My plan is to bring back into balance the criminal-justice system,” Gressley concluded. “The district attorney is the most powerful piece in the county. It can literally change the trajectory of a person’s life.”
Gressley may be familiar to many in town. She sang with Poetic Justice, a group with Alex Watson, at several venues in Idyllwild.