Attorney General candidates debate criminal justice reform, immigration enforcement

By: Amani Mahmoud, CW and Mark Bertumen, CW

UCR hosted a debate between the four candidates for California’s Office of Attorney General (AG) on the evening of Tuesday, May 15 at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

The event brought together Democrat incumbent Xavier Becerra and his three competing candidates: Steven Bailey, a Republican former superior court judge; Eric Early, a Republican attorney with the firm Early, Sullivan, Wright, Gizer & McRae LLP; and Dave Jones, California’s Democrat commissioner of insurance. The debate was co-moderated by Grover Trask, co-director of UCR’s Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies, and Paulette Brown-Hinds, founder of Voice Media Ventures and publisher of the Inland Empire’s Voice newspaper.

The hour-long debate served as a question and answer session based on audience questions that were submitted online. The panel first asked the number one priority of the candidates in terms of public safety responsibilities.

Jones responded first, saying that he hopes to improve the rehabilitation of jailed criminals. “I want to focus on substance treatment, job treatment,” Jones said. “If we do not do this, the science tells us that these people will reoffend and cause greater harm.” Early followed, saying that his lead priority was public safety, while Becerra argued that one way of improving public safety would be by removing guns from the hands of known felons in California. Bailey believes that the current consideration of domestic abuse as a “nonviolent crime” and the early release of sexual offenders from prison are partially to blame for the rise of crime by 24 percent in California, and that those precepts ought to be removed to lower crime rates.

Candidates were then asked about their personal qualities, those that they have outside of their profession that assists voters in deciding who should be the new AG.

Early spoke first. “I care deeply about the people of all races, creed, nationality and sexuality,” Early stated. “If you are a law-abiding citizen of this state, you will have no better friend in government than me. If you’re not, I am not going to be your friend.” Jones responded next, saying that he wants to bring people from “all walks of life” together to confront challenges concerning rehabilitating those coming out of prison. Becerra said that he intends to “make people believe that they can trust what I say. I intend to try and earn respect.”

The debate later focused on the more than 30 lawsuits that Becerra has filed against President Trump and the federal government, asking the candidates if this was straying away from the duties of the attorney general.

Bailey believed that California did not have to make a lawsuit for every event that happens in Washington D.C. “We’ve got a number of lawsuits that are just, quite frankly, frivolous,” Bailey declared. As AG, Bailey said he would look over the lawsuits and drop those that he considers “frivolous.” Jones responded that there were more pressing matters in California that Becerra had overlooked as a result of the lawsuits, stating that there were 10,000 people with guns “who by law should not have them” and that Becerra had not paid much attention to the opioid epidemic in the state. Early said that the excessive lawsuits were draining California’s taxpayers of its money to be carried out. Becerra held fast that he had been doing the right thing, pointing out that there had been victory in 17 of those 32 lawsuits so far, specifically referencing the lawsuit over Trump’s attempts to take away birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

The panel then asked the candidates about their thoughts on Assembly Bill (AB) 109, a piece of legislature that in 2011 declared that felony offenders would be put in county jails instead of state prisons, in the event that state prisons become overcrowded. The panel pointed out that AB 109’s “decarceration efforts were enhanced” by Prop 47, which turned drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and Prop 57, which allowed the consideration of parole for non-violent criminals.

Early responded that no provisions were made to accommodate the shift in the jailing paradigm. “There was no money given to these local (county) communities and it has caused a mess in our state jail system,” Early said. Concerning Prop 57, Early believed that “nobody in (the) audience wants the early release of these people. Those in charge of Sacramento for years are turning California into a criminals’ paradise.” He would amend the pieces of legislation if given the chance. Bailey stated that California has created a “failed policy” with these acts of legislature, resulting in crime on the streets that has to be taken care of.

Jones spoke next, expressing his desire to reform the existing legislation by redefining “violent” crimes and routing money into rehab programs for prisoners. Becerra responded by referring to his time as an attorney representing mentally ill people with low income. These people initially lived inside long-stay psychiatric hospitals, but were eventually pushed to the streets as the hospitals were turned into mental health service buildings in a process known as “deinstitutionalization.” Going off of this experience, and similar to Early’s response from before, Becerra reflected that resources must be provided to make sure that those put on the streets are not taken off of them again due to their involvement, or reinvolvement, with crime.

The next question involved how the candidates would resolve legal issues surrounding the Senate Bill (SB) 54 “Values Act,” which made California a sanctuary state but prompted the U.S. AG to sue California for attempting to do so.

Bailey believed that California should not be deciding on this sort of policy and considered the action unconstitutional. “What we did here in California is create not a sanctuary state, but a sanctuary for criminals,” Bailey said, referring to the illegal immigrants that are coming into California as “collateral damage of the failed, foolish policy that came out of Sacramento.” Jones believes that SB 54 ought to stay, and argued that the policy “was carefully crafted to make sure that it did not intrude upon the federal government’s responsibilities on immigration,” and also stated that he would do what he could to protect California from deportations. Becerra declared that as a son of immigrants he would “defend (people like) them with every fiber in (his) body,” and found offense in how his opponents described and viewed SB 54; referring back to Bailey’s comment on California being a “criminal’s paradise,” Becerra said that no law protects any criminal by sanctuary jurisdiction. Early, also a son of immigrants, who he pointed out were legal, stated that SB 54 indeed violated the U.S. Constitution. “Becerra does not believe in borders,” Early declared, saying that “we cannot (afford to) take any more illegal immigrants; we are essentially a financially bankrupt state.”

Candidates were then asked about if they supported or opposed the death penalty in California.

Becerra said that the death penalty should be upheld, specifically referring to Proposition 66, which states that all appeals to the conviction (which are always made automatically) must be handled in the courts of initial trial. Early also supported the death penalty since California citizens voted on it (albeit with a small margin between 6.6 million “yes” votes and 6.3 million “no” votes) but reasoned that it has only been in name in recent years for California and argued that it has to be upheld more actionably. Jones was against the death penalty, and desired to remove the possibility for mistaken execution of an innocent convict. Bailey supported the death penalty, referring to his time as superior court judge and his time talking to those on death row to say that “there are some people who can just never be trusted to be on our streets,” remarking that he himself has “seen it on the inside.”

The panel’s final question asked for the candidates’ views on the following statement: “Educators have voiced concern that more oppressive immigration enforcement will jeopardize students’ state safety and interfere with their school’s education mission.”

Jones agreed with the statement, saying that he had seen it happen in his own community. “Families are being broken up, parents are being taken away from their children,” Jones responded, “teachers and school principals have told me there is fear in their schools.” He also argued that this fear of deportation prevents undocumented immigrants from reporting on other crimes unrelated to deportation and in turn increases crime overall and lowers public safety. Becerra also supported the statement, recalling his time in Congress when families would go to his office and ask if they could do anything to ensure that their kids don’t come home to an empty house.

Early focused on the securing of borders to prevent further illegal immigration, citing that California already spends $20 million a year on current undocumented immigrants. He also pointed out that the Hispanic communities that he has interacted with do not like illegal immigration either, highlighting that those of similar ethnicities do not necessarily hold the same opinion. Bailey considered the issue to be one for the federal government to handle and stated that families ought to not be broken up by oppressive immigration enforcement but otherwise did not elaborate on a clear stance of concurrence with the statement at hand.

The debate concluded at 8:23 p.m., after each candidate’s closing statement.

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