In NAACP forum, candidates for Douglas County district attorney share laws they want to see changed
photo by: Screenshot
Candidates for Douglas County district attorney shared what state statutes they would alter if they could during an online forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP on Saturday.
Ursula Minor, president of the local NAACP branch, moderated the forum. The three Democratic candidates — newcomers Cooper Overstreet and Suzanne Valdez, and incumbent Charles Branson — also answered questions about their views on legalization of marijuana, reducing overcrowding at the jail and reducing recidivism.
Although the DA can’t singlehandedly change the law, one question to the candidates was what they would change if they did have the ability to address state statutes.
Overstreet, a defense attorney, said that despite efforts of people in the defense community advocating with the Legislature, laws are getting more punitive, and they don’t allow for discretion on a case-by-case basis. He also said that state laws on cash bail need to be reformed and that he would advocate directly for that, because he sees cash bail as a way to keep people in jail just to punish them or to try to make them take a plea.
Branson said he would start with sentencing guidelines, the laws that dictate how judges must sentence people convicted of crimes. He said some misdemeanors require minimum fines or minimum jail time, which are rarely reflective of the offender’s conduct, and there can be huge disparities there for minorities and the poor. He also said although his office has done away with some fees within its purview, only judges can waive mandatory fines and lab fees.
Valdez, a professor of law at the University of Kansas and special prosecutor for Wyandotte County, said she would like to focus on juvenile offenders and how young people are treated within the system. She said that when she worked as pro tem judge on the juvenile docket, it was troubling to her to see how young people, especially Latino and Black youth, were treated in the system. She said she thinks that adds to the school-to-prison pipeline and leads to recidivism as adults, so she would want to address those issues.
Minor also asked candidates for their positions on legalizing marijuana.
Branson said legalization will happen in Kansas eventually, and marijuana should be treated the same way alcohol is, as an addictive substance. He said a charge for simple possession of marijuana has been used as a “policing tool” against minorities, and his office stopped prosecuting such cases last fall.
Valdez said she agreed with Branson; however, she said the line needed to be clear between simple possession and personal use versus possession of large quantities with intent to distribute. She said the national landscape has shown that such criminal enterprises can be problematic, involving guns and human trafficking, and she believes it’s important to take a role in ensuring community safety.
Overstreet said the criminalization of marijuana is one of the biggest drivers of mass incarceration and one of the most harmful things ever done to communities of color. He said the criminal justice system isn’t fair if what’s OK one state over is not OK here in Kansas. He supports legalization, and he would do everything he could to end the war on drugs and, instead, treat drug addiction as a public health crisis, he said.
Minor also asked the candidates how they view their role in reducing overcrowding at the jail and reducing recidivism.
Valdez said the DA’s office needs to be more supportive of offenders than punitive, and she would want to see reformative justice to encourage offenders to become part of the community and make peace with victims and survivors. To reduce overcrowding at the jail, she would like to see multidisciplinary teams sent on some calls with law enforcement, including experts who could help deescalate situations. She said she also believes law enforcement does not have clear guidance on which crimes are cause to book someone into jail.
Branson said the jail population declined during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s remained low because law enforcement is not booking as many arrestees. That hasn’t made the community less safe, he said, and law enforcement should use the jail as a last resort. On recidivism, he said Douglas County needs inpatient substance treatment for men, because the only options now are outside the community, including as far away as Wichita.
In addition to his stance on cash bail, Overstreet said the legal system is full of barriers to success. There are unfair and unrealistic expectations, many of which make it difficult for people of color and people who don’t have money to succeed, he said, and once you’re in the system it’s more difficult to get out. He would use discretion in filing charges and try to break down those barriers to justice, he said.
The full video is available via the Lawrence Kansas Branch NAACP Facebook page, facebook.com/LawrenceKSNAACP. At 1 p.m. next Saturday, July 18, the candidates for Douglas County sheriff will participate in an online forum with the local NAACP.
The next district attorney will almost certainly be decided in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, as no Republicans filed for the seat. The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday and advance voting begins Wednesday. For more information or to check your registration, visit douglascountyelections.com or ksvotes.org.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:
More 2020 election coverage: Douglas County district attorney race
• April 28, 2020: District Attorney Charles Branson files for reelection in 2020
• April 16, 2020: Two Democrats file to run for Douglas County district attorney