A sitting judge, Burke Strunsky, is one of two challengers to the third term for incumbent Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin. (Strunsky has taken a leave of absence while campaigning.)
The 49-year-old jurist has sat on the Riverside County Superior Court since 2017. But most of his professional career has been at the prosecutor’s table in front of another judge. Strunsky spent 15 years with the county District Attorney’s Office, being recognized as Prosecutor of the Year in both 2008 and 2011. Before coming to Riverside County, Strunsky was a prosecutor in San Francisco.
When asked why voters should chose him over Hestrin, he replied, “Crime is up and justice is down.” For the past five years, Strunsky said he has watched from his bench the “great injustices” being done in the name of the District Attorney Office’s and its ineffectiveness. Yet, Riverside communities are becoming less safe.
“We all have a civil right to live in a safe community,” Burke said when announcing his candidacy. “The reason I have chosen to run is because Mike Hestrin, the incumbent district attorney, has failed. I no longer can stand aside …
“The DA’s office uses coercive charging practices to achieve disposition,” he specifically averred. “There is a lack of focus for non-violent crimes and recognition of how mental health affects defendants. To simply focus on jail or prison isn’t fair to people.”
But it is the rising crime rate that Strunsky targets and he does not believe COVID is the simple or principle reason, especially in Riverside County.
According to him, crime has been rising “well before COVID.” The Riverside homicide rate, to which Strunsky directs attention, has been increasing at double digits for five years.
In Riverside County, the number of homicides per 100,000 population has increased from 3.7 in 2015 to 6.3 in 2020. A 70% increase is the greatest of all California counties. San Bernardino’s homicide rate increase was 63%, while Los Angeles and San Diego counties experienced 18% and 21% increases, respectively. San Francisco’s increase was 3% and Marin County had a decline during the same period.
Although Riverside County has the largest rate of increase, the actual number of homicides per 100,000 population was still greater in San Bernardino County (8.3), Los Angeles County (6.7) and even Alameda County (8.7).
“This is a long-term problem. Homicides were down only one year during this period,” he said.
But Strunsky underscored using the death penalty as one example of how his case management would be different from Hestrin’s policies. He believes cases involving the death penalty cost much more, perhaps $1 million more, than life without parole prosecutions.
“Hestrin pursues the death penalty more than any other DA in California,” asserted Strunsky. “As a former prosecutor, I’ve handled death penalty cases. And as DA, I will not seek death penalty under any circumstance.”
Another example of the management problems embedded in the District Attorney’s Office is the lack of adequate demographic data from its case workloads, according to Strunsky.
These data are needed to evaluate, “How the DA’s Office is doing with complaint charging in like cases and their disposition,” he explained. Having these data will ensure fairness is applied across all cases and toward all defendants. Without it, one does not know whether bias may have slipped into the process or whether different groups of people are being inadvertently treated differently.
“This needs to be a transparent process so that the public maintains trust in our enforcement process,” Strunsky said. And he stressed that he was not alleging any racial bias, but rather the lack of data inhibits our ability to know.
As an example, he referred to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report that criticized the Riverside DA for its inability or difficulty accessing this information.
One area to which Strunsky would devote more resources if he were elected is wage theft. He sees numerous incidents of employers with low-wage workers exploiting them. They might deny benefits, pay less than minimum wage with cash, or extend the hours worked without compensation. These are economic crimes that damage our fabric, he argued.
The political endorsements for Strunsky and Hestrin are notably from different sides of the aisle. For example, last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom endorsed Strunsky.
But one set of Hestrin’s endorsements also come with significant campaign contributors. Strunsky is specifically concerned with the gifts from the Riverside Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement groups to Hestrin.
“There’s a big difference between getting an endorsement and relying on an organization to fund your campaign,” Strunsky stated. “I have tremendous respect for law enforcement agencies. But the DA has criminal oversight of law enforcement. If an officer were charged with misconduct, the sheriff’s deputies would defend him. That’s the conflict.”
By accepting donations as large as $20,000 and more from an organization, can one fairly prosecute or oppose that donor? Strunsky is asking.
“It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he argues. “Public will not trust law enforcement if they believe law enforcement is not being held accountable.”
When asked if the District Attorney’s Office could play a stronger role in the conflict over short-term rentals, which is important to Hill residents, Strunsky replied, “The candid answer is no.” While acknowledging the problem exists, he felt the resolution depended on stronger policies and code follow up.
With respect to wildfire issues, he answered, “If it’s arson, the DA’s office will pursue that aggressively.”
Since three are candidates seeking the district attorney position, Strunsky feels the June results will set up a two-person race in November. And he plans to be one of those.
“I wouldn’t have stepped down and given up a judgeship if I weren’t all in,” he declared. “I believe we need to do a lot better … Riverside County is a compassionate community and wants to be safe. Our current DA is not reflective of those principles …”