California justice: What style fits?

It could be weeks before Californians learn who is the state’s new top law officer. Republican Steve Cooley holds a slight lead of some 22,000 votes over Democrat Kamala Harris with more than 2 million ballots left uncounted in the attorney general’s race.

The closeness of the race between candidates with divergent views of how justice is best administered is symbolic of the larger conversation about the criminal justice system.

Cooley, the favored candidate of law enforcement, is an old-style prosecutor. Harris styles herself as an innovator and told The Chronicle that the “California attorney general can play a systemic role in fixing a flawed system.”

The advent of DNA testing, which revealed cases where the innocent were sentenced to prison or even death, has caused many to question the fairness of our system. “People have legitimate reasons not to believe in their justice system,” Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins told the National Conference of Editorial Writers in September. “As district attorney, my first goal was to have everyone feel that the system would afford them justice.” Watkins set up a conviction integrity unit in 2007 that since has delivered more DNA-based exonerations than any other district in the country.

The nature of the prosecutor’s job is to balance the responsibility not to convict the wrong person with protecting the public. But what style of justice best achieves that end?

Brooks Harrington, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and now a Methodist minister in Fort Worth, shared the dais with Watkins. He said building credibility in the justice system among all segments of society will require rethinking the prosecutorial culture, which focuses on convictions. “You don’t rise in the prosecutor’s field if you are soft,” he said. But in part because of that culture, “the justice system is fraught with possibilities for going wrong.” Harrington learned in December 2009 that DNA testing had exonerated a man he put in prison in 1981.

It remains to be seen which candidate and style Californians have chosen, but Watkins is right about this: “The electorate will respect that we are questioning convictions.”

Source: SF Gate


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