Editor’s note: On June 7, Riverside County will hold a primary election for district attorney. The three candidates — Incumbent Michael Hestrin, challenger Lara Gressley and challenger Judge Burke Strunsky — have spoken to the Town Crier. All three interviews are in this issue.
Lara Gressley, a Northern California native now living with her family in Riverside County, is an appellate attorney for the innocent. She is making her second attempt to replace Michael Hestrin as Riverside County district attorney. In 2018, Hestrin easily defeated Gressley, partly due to her late entry to the race.
For this year’s election, Gressley is fully prepared and began raising campaign funds in 2021, nearly a year before the primary.
During her 20-year legal career, she has worked in the Riverside County Counsel Office, she has served as a public defender and, since 2011, her private practice has focused on appellate cases.
Her platform remains the same: “Justice First.” 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.
And applying that principle to efforts of the Riverside District Attorney’s Office, Gressly stated, “I want to end overzealous prosecution. We need to re-program the ‘win-at-all-costs’ attitude.”
She argues that Hestrin’s office is only focused on its public perception as crime fighters rather than all aspects of a case — the crime, the victim, the defendant and the costs. “They strive to get the conviction rate up without regard to justice. That results in some innocent people being convicted,” Gressley laments.
“Public safety is the top priority, but justice is not simply obtaining a felony conviction, especially when the person deserves a misdemeanor,” she argued. “The question has to be what should we charge, not what can we charge to coerce a guilty plea.”
One cost of this attitude, according to her, is the slow decline in the huge case backlog due to the courts’ closure during the worst of the COVID pandemic. With more than 1,800 cases still open, she argues that some of the least serious offenses, especially for defendants who are still in jail because of the inability to meet bail requirements, should now be dismissed because of the lack of a speedy trial.
“Overcharging is counterproductive. It results in jail congestion which is not making the people safer,” she argues.
For Gressley, justice is more than simply incarcerating a criminal. The crime can reverberate through the community and affect several lives. Consequently, as district attorney, she would make equal effort to employ alternative sentences to jail time. She advocates cash bail reform.
The use of 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.
In her role as an appellate defense attorney, she frequently sees bail amounts as simple economic discrimination rather than tools of the criminal justice system. Wealthy individuals can be released on bail while poor, and often minority defendants, must await trial in jail. 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.
Bail requirements are an important concern for her since they are a piece of the criminal justice system. Exclusive of violent crime perpetrators and ensuring the community is safe, she wants a “… solution so that people are not sitting in jail just because they are poor.” And Gressley frequently stressed that she is not suggesting people charged with violent crimes be released.
Bail reform, as well as the length of time the district attorney takes to respond to discovery motions, can help relieve the overcrowding in jails, she argues.
“Eighty percent of people in jail are awaiting some resolution to their case. This creates overcrowding and it costs about $60,000 to house an individual in jail for a year,” she added.
The district attorney doesn’t provide answers to discovery to defense attorneys quickly, which means some defendants who have been arrested are taking up jail beds that are also needed for the convicted. This creates overcrowding that often results in releasing the convicted.
“We need a quicker resolution of cases and getting discovery to the defense is one way to speed the process and lessen overcrowding,” she maintains.
“Building more jails may not be the best answer to overcrowding,” Gressley continued. “There is no money to staff more jails. We need to move cases faster.” The consequence of making excessive charges is keeping non-violent defendants incarcerated which has an important fiscal impact on the jail overcrowding issue.
After making the charges, providing discovery, going to trial, gaining a conviction and serving time for the crime, Gressley wants more attention given to reducing the incidence of recidivism. She wants more programs available to rehabilitate the people finishing their conviction time.
Justice also is trying to prevent crimes, not just punishing them, she avers.
With respect to the issue of short-term rentals that has plagued and divided Hill residents, Gressley said she understands and empathizes with the residents.
“Whether the sheriff cites or arrests a person, and depending on whether it’s vandalism or nuisance, the district attorney has a role,” she responded. “Whenever there is a crime, the DA is involved. I’d want to work with the people, but we’re back to jail overcrowding.
“I’d love to put teeth in a misdemeanor, but one year in jail is no leverage if there is no space,” Gressley advised.
With respect to the June primary, Gressley believes that none of the three candidates will garner more than 50% of votes cast. Consequently, the district attorney will be chosen in the November election. And she is confident her name will be on that ballot.
While the district attorney’s election is nonpartisan, Gressley is the lone “No Party Preference” candidate. Each of her opponents have received endorsements from one of the two major parties. Hestrin has support from elected Republicans and Strunsky from elected Democrats. This is another reason for her confidence.
“This is a nonpartisan race. The DA should not be involved in partisan politics,” she believes. “It is not a policy-making position. The DA’s role is to enforce the law.”
As district attorney, her goals will be to end overcharging, reduce excessive jail time, address recidivism, punish violent offenders and give others a second chance.
Gressley also added that she misses Idyllwild. In earlier times, she has appeared locally as the singer with Poetic Justice, a group with Alex Watson, at several venues in town.