Change in the air for Sacramento DA’s Office, no matter who wins

05/23/2014 12:00 AM

05/23/2014 12:22 AM

Twice now in candidate forums, Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has told audiences: “I’m not Jan Scully.”

In separating herself from her boss, who has endorsed her, Schubert says she is mainly articulating her own independence. Yet almost in her next breath, she goes on at the forums to offer a list of community-based crime prevention initiatives she says she will enact if she gets to replace Scully as the Sacramento County district attorney.

By telling voters how she would be different than Scully, Schubert is stepping onto the turf of her campaign rivals, who have promised significant change for the county prosecutorial agency. Deputy State Attorney General Maggy Krell says she will shake up the office and even change its priorities from prosecuting crime to preventing it. Todd Leras, the third candidate in the race, says he wants to take a sledgehammer to what he sees as the top-down culture that has marked the DA’s Office under Scully.

Scully has occupied the DA’s Office for 20 years. The election to replace her is June 3.

“It’s not broken,” Krell said of the DA’s Office, “but it’s stagnant. It’s antiquated. And it needs a fresh approach and a fresh vision.”

“That office, structurally, is set up to where it runs pretty well,” Leras said. “The structure is fine, but the priorities are wrong.”

As an 18-year employee and the supervisor of one it the DA’s most important units, Schubert, who had headed the detail that prosecutes sexual assaults and child abuse, has strongly defended an office that she believes has done “an incredible job” under Scully.

Schubert’s challenge has been to establish herself as her own person, to show how she would lead differently, while at the same time maintaining her allegiance to the DA she admires. Oftentimes, her balancing act has taken place while she’s been under fire from critical questions shot at her by panelists at the public forums that have included a law professor who was harshly critical of the state’s “three-strikes” law Schubert supported, a retired African American judge who asked about racial disparities in juvenile sentencing, and local pastors who began the evening with a prayer for the incarcerated.

Her response: crack down on the lawbreakers, but don’t forget about prevention, and embrace innovation.

“Our core prosecution function has been to hold people accountable,” Schubert said in an interview. “Our office also has historically created long-term programs to prevent crime and created alternatives to sentencing. I just believe we can do more, and I look forward to doing more.”

Phil Giarrizzo, a local Democratic political consultant with no ties to any of the DA candidates, said Schubert “has taken advantage of the Scully base, and now she’s trying to broaden her appeal by saying, ‘I’m my own person and I’ll do things differently.’ ”

“I think she would have had to find her way there one way or another,” Giarrizzo said. “Perhaps the pressure (from the other candidates) forced her to move there sooner.”

If some of the candidates have problems with the way the DA’s Office has been run, the electorate hasn’t expressed much desire for a change.

Since Scully won the office in 1994, the voters have re-elected her four times. Three times, she ran unopposed. The one year she was challenged, in 2010, she received 79 percent of the vote.

Under her tenure, the office gained a generally solid reputation as a smooth-running operation led by experienced top-level managers appointed by Scully. The DA’s Office hit hard on three-strikes cases in the first years after the harsh sentencing law was enacted, but backed off in 2002 when it came to seeking 25-years-to-life penalties on career criminals whose third strikes were for relatively minor felonies, such as drug possession. The office also has taken a measured approach on the death penalty, seeking and obtaining capital punishment for five murderers since 2003.

From 1994 to 2012, violent crime in Sacramento, with Scully as the county’s top law enforcement officer, dropped from a rate of 934 per 100,000 population to 554. Property crime fell by more than half, from a rate of 4,355 to 2,170. The murder rate also was cut more than 50 percent from 11.1 to 5.45 per 100,000.

Among her peers, Scully in 2006 was selected as the president of the California District Attorneys Association.

“It tells me among the DAs, she’s well regarded,” said UC Davis law professor Floyd Feeney, an expert in criminal procedure. “I suspect if I were a candidate challenging on that, I’d say, ‘So what?’ So it sort of depends on your perspective.”

‘Moving forward’

In demanding change, Schubert’s opponents have held her up as the standard bearer of an administration that they believe has fallen short.

Krell, 35, said that in her travels around the state as a deputy attorney general, she has seen other DA’s offices taking the lead in embracing the state’s 2011 realignment law, which shifted responsibility for incarceration and supervision of lower-level offenders to the counties. She said in her conversations with fellow prosecutors in California, she doesn’t hear much good about the Sacramento County DA’s Office.

“I don’t think the office has a great reputation,” Krell said.

She did not want to discuss what she sees as its areas of failure.

“I think the question is, how can we do better,” Krell said. “I’m interested in moving forward, and after 20 years, how can the office improve public safety.”

If she’s elected, Krell said she would start by cutting her her own pay from Scully’s current $186,675 to something less than what state Attorney General Kamala Harris makes, which is $151,127. The reduction would leave Krell with a salary below those of all her top assistants and 26 of her most senior trial attorneys. She said she thinks the office needs to focus more on human trafficking cases and refrain from prosecuting underage girls arrested for prostitution. The girls should be treated as victims, not criminals, she said.

Krell said she would would beef up the DA’s public corruption and officer-involved shooting units. She wants more alternative sentencing programs, “neighborhood accountability boards” to deal with lower-level offenders and more diversion programs for first-time offenders. She’d emphasize interaction with the community to work with youths who are just starting to get into trouble, before they commit the serious types of felonies that could ruin their lives before they’re out of their teens.

Along with cutting her pay, Krell said she would conduct a “an overall top to bottom review of the office to ensure that we’re following the best practices and that the office is being managed as efficiently as possible.”

If some of her initiatives mean more responsibilities for the office’s attorneys, “I think we can add to people’s workload,” Krell said. She would ask managers to take on “small caseloads.”

“I think that office has a lot of talented prosecutors,” Krell said. “If I win this election, I’ll be calling those prosecutors and setting up meetings on the office and how we can work together to make it better. I know there are people in the office who are excited about the fact I might win. I wouldn’t base any promotions on where people are now. My goal is to set up the best management team possible.”

‘Culture of fear’

Leras, 50, a former federal and state prosecutor who is now in private practice, said that to him, change in the DA’s Office means replacing what he describes as “a culture of fear.” He said that in his view from the courtroom rail awaiting his own cases to be called as a defense attorney, he sees Sacramento deputy DAs who handle the bulk of the felony caseloads afraid to make their own basic decisions without first gaining the approval of their supervisors.

“I don’t think the DA’s Office should be run that way,” Leras said. “They’re told what to do, and they know, ‘As long as I do what I’m told, I won’t get in any trouble.’ ”

He would maintain broad office policies where supervisors have to approve resolutions on the most serious cases and whether to add or subtract sentencing enhancements such as prior strikes or gun-use allegations. Otherwise, he would empower his people to call their own shots.

“The most important thing,” Leras said, “is you need to send the message that people aren’t going to be punished because they advocated for the resolution of a case.”

Schubert, 50, said she has been an advocate for change her entire time in the DA’s Office. She pointed to her early push for the office to employ DNA as a prosecutorial tool and to her creation of a truancy program that informs parents they can be prosecuted if their kids don’t go to school.

If she’s elected, she said, she would make additional changes, such as getting the DA’s Office more involved in the community and more involved in crime prevention, along with educating parents about how social media and the Internet have created more opportunities for criminals to exploit young people in numerous ways. She said she would advocate for legislation that would allow local prosecutorial agencies to use wiretaps in public corruption cases.

And what is Schubert trying to show when she makes a point of saying she’s not Scully?

“It means that I’m Anne Marie Schubert, and I got to this place in my life and my own career because of my own abilities, demonstrations and qualifications,” Schubert said. “I’ve created some of my own programs in this office that demonstrate not only my past commitment, but that I have the capacity to do that in the future.”

Mitch Zak, a Republican strategist who has contributed money to Schubert, said “it makes total sense” for any candidate to promise a new direction. Even if Jan Scully was running for re-election, “she would have ideas on how to change and adapt,” he said.

“Obviously, you’re going to have a different district attorney,” Zak said. “By that very nature, it comes down to what kind of change do you want.”

Related information:
•  Maggy Krell looks to shake up Sacramento County DA’s Office
•  Todd Leras looking to return to Sacramento County DA’s Office as its leader
•  Schubert cites experience, passion for justice in run for Sacramento County DA
•  Slideshow: Four races to watch in California's June 3 primary election


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