San Diego District Attorney’s Race Pits Public Defender Against County’s Interim Prosecutor
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Photo by Tarryn Mento
In a small room above the library in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, the candidates running for District Attorney pitched their platforms to a few dozen audience members. Appointed Interim District Attorney Summer Stephan touted her leadership during her nearly three decades as a deputy district attorney.
Her opponent, San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright, spoke critically of the office.
"I’m running for District Attorney because the DA’s office has been staunch opponents of criminal justice reforms," Jones-Wright said.
Stephan and Jones-Wright are the sole candidates to step up after former longtime District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis stepped down to run for county supervisor. The two, whose careers put them on opposite sides in a courtroom, present a polarizing choice for San Diego voters. The race is one of few in the county to be decided at the June primary, when turnout can be low, instead of the general election in November.
Stephan said her path to the prosecutor’s office began when she was growing up. She recounts the influence of her grandmother, who survived the Armenian Genocide.
"She would say it’s really important to take advantage of the education, the ability for you to have a voice to help someone else," said Stephan, who grew up in what she described as a strict Greek-Armenian household.
Stephan said she excelled academically and reached high school nearly two years earlier than most, making her a target for bullies. The oldest of four sisters said her past experiences encouraged her to fight for victims later in life as a prosecutor. During her more than 28 years with the District Attorney’s office, she headed the North County branch, served as Chief Deputy District Attorney and led efforts to combat sex crimes, including the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force.
"A victim-centered human trafficking task force that holds offenders of organized crime accountable but also deals with victims with dignity and respect," said Stephan, who also chairs the National District Attorneys Association's human trafficking committee.
She also emphasizes her support of child victims. As the prosecutor on a case against the gunman in a 2010 elementary school shooting, Stephan said she incorporated new interviewing techniques to avoid re-traumatizing the children. She also successfully earned a guilty verdict.
"Which was tougher than it looked because he brought an insanity defense and two court-appointed doctors said he was insane, but having a little bit of OCD about little kids being shot, I read every single thing he ever wrote on his computer; I reviewed his whole history, and we were able to show that he was not insane,” Stephan said.
While Stephan’s name recognition presents a challenge to her lesser-known opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright said her nearly 14 years in criminal defense would bring a new perspective to the DA’s office.
"I’m a person who has been working in the trenches every single day, seeing how these policies and decisions that come out of the DA’s office affect people, families, communities, whole neighborhoods and this entire county," said Jones-Wright, who also chairs the gang documentation committee on the city's gang commission.
Stephan is also part of the commission.
Jones-Wright said she grew up with two sisters and was raised by a single mom in San Diego’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, where she witnessed encounters between the community and police.
"You would see it all of the time, and it was never a positive interaction,” she said.
Jones-Wright said she started in criminal defense doing pro-bono work before joining the Riverside County public defender's office in 2006. Later that year, she joined San Diego's public defender office in the misdemeanor unit before she was promoted to felony cases in 2011.
As a public defender, Jones-Wright claims too few of her clients receive deputy DA recommendations for programs that would divert them from incarceration.
"When you have circumstances where you know that someone has come to you and they have juvenile delinquency records, that means they’ve been court-involved before," she said. "So what happened along the line that they didn’t get the help to prevent them from coming into adult court?”
A spokeswoman for the public defender’s office said the agency does not track how often requests for diversion programs are approved.
Her opponent Stephan has said she had a hand in establishing one of those programs for veterans, but Jones-Wright claims Stephan would continue what she calls a reform-averse administration. Jones-Wright pointed to Stephan’s former boss, who opposed reforms that would reduce some low-level offenses (Prop. 47) and approve recreational marijuana (Prop. 64), which San Diego voters later approved.
"These reform measures signaled the direction that San Diegans wanted to go in, where we were saying some punishments are too severe for the crime," she said.
At the recent forum in City Heights, Stephan said the office has taken a proactive approach against past marijuana-related convictions since California approved its recreational use with Prop 64’s passing.
“We had the ability to actually search our systems to find out if there is anyone that is incarcerated based on old laws that would not be under the current law or that would have a misdemeanor under current law that has a felony so it prevents them from getting a job or housing," she said.
However, Jones-Wright countered that it was a collaborative effort.
“Public defenders are the ones doing the applications because the district attorney’s not just summarily taking things and reducing them down to misdemeanors or dismissing them,” she said.
It’s unclear how well each candidate will draw voters to the polls in a non-presidential primary election.
The City Heights forum was mostly filled with Stephan’s friends, a family member, employees and other supporters who drove from outside the community. One unaffiliated Mid-City resident who also attended said he wasn’t aware the race would be decided in June. A second, who arrived after the forum because she learned of it too late, said she feels she overall lacks information about the race. A third said she left the forum more conflicted over who would get her vote than when she walked in.
A veteran prosecutor serving as interim District Attorney is running against a deputy public defender seeking change.
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