2020 Primary Voters Guide: Meet the candidates for Douglas County district attorney
photo by: Contributed Photos
The next Douglas County district attorney, who will almost certainly be decided in the primary election Aug. 4, faces renewed cries for a hard look at the local criminal justice system.
Three Democrats — two newcomers, Cooper Overstreet and Suzanne Valdez, and incumbent Charles Branson — have filed, but no Republicans have thrown their hats in the ring. Branson was first elected in 2004, and he has not faced an opponent in any election since.
A few overarching issues have dominated the candidate forums in this race. Among them are a planned expansion of the Douglas County Jail, which has lately come into question as the previously overcrowded jail’s population has diminished during the coronavirus pandemic; racial issues and accountability of law enforcement; and equitable treatment of all defendants in criminal cases.
The DA oversees a budget of approximately $2.55 million, and over the past few years the office has employed roughly 40 to 50 people, according to salary data from the county. Here’s a look at each of the three candidates in the order in which they filed.
photo by: Contributed Photo
Mass incarceration and unfair treatment of minorities and the poor have inspired Lawrence defense attorney Cooper Overstreet to run for Douglas County district attorney, he told the Journal-World.
Overstreet, 32, recently left the Swain Law Office. He said it’s fair for people to wonder how he would prosecute cases, given his work experience. However, he said that just as it’s his responsibility to provide his clients a zealous defense, he would advocate for victims and survivors as a prosecutor.
Overstreet has said that statistics show when someone is booked into jail, even for just a few days, their lives and their families can be irreparably harmed. One of his main campaign platforms is that prosecutors in his office would not request that judges require defendants to be held in custody on cash bail, except in cases of individuals who his office could prove are real threats to public safety.
He also said the public would be “hard pressed” to find a simple drug possession case that he will charge because it’s time to stop criminalizing drug addiction; he would instead treat it as a public health crisis.
He opposes an expansion of the Douglas County Jail. He’s said he believes county jails are the front door to mass incarceration in the United States. He has also voiced concerns about disproportionate representation of racial minorities in the jail, pointing to a June report to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that showed that as of May, Black people constituted 25% of the jail’s population despite making up just 6% of the county’s overall population.
Another point he has pushed is that law enforcement officers and prosecutors shouldn’t investigate themselves. He favors the concept of a citizen review board that would “have teeth,” meaning resources made available to investigate allegations of misconduct by law enforcement. He also said he’s in favor of a conviction integrity unit, which would review past cases that the DA’s office has handled to ensure no misconduct had occurred.
Overstreet said that “every attorney in a small practice is constantly budgeting to ensure the lights in the office stay on,” and the margins are relatively thin, especially compared to the budget that the state has for prosecution. As DA, his budgetary focus would be to shift funds away from “inefficient and outdated methods of prosecution” and into prevention and harm reduction, he said.
Overstreet is originally from Augusta, a small town outside of Wichita. He came to Lawrence in 2006 to get his bachelor of arts in history and political science from the University of Kansas, and then attended KU’s law school, graduating in 2014. He lives with his wife, Kelly Overstreet, who is a doctoral student in KU’s School of Public Administration, and their 1 1/2-year-old daughter.
photo by: KU School of Law/Contributed Photo
Throughout her campaign, Suzanne Valdez has often spoken of her desire to talk with community stakeholders and activists to work collaboratively to solve problems in the local criminal justice system.
Valdez, 51, teaches prosecutorial ethics as a full-time professor at the University of Kansas School of Law. She is also a special prosecutor for the Wyandotte County DA’s office, handling cases that involve conflicts of interest for that office’s staff.
Valdez has told the Journal-World that she thinks clarity and leadership are needed in the DA’s office, and she would work to put clear policies in place and ensure that cases move through the system quickly.
Valdez said she thinks one of the key tensions in the Douglas County Jail expansion issue has been safety of personnel and of inmates; however, she said the past 30 years have shown that if you build jails, you fill them, and she does not support an expansion.
As a Hispanic woman, Valdez said she and her family members understand and have experienced systemic racism. She said she values alternatives to incarceration because it’s a problem that disproportionately affects marginalized communities. One way she said she would aim to improve racial disparities in the criminal justice system as DA is by hiring people of color and others who have experienced racism and bias firsthand as prosecutors.
She has said she thinks the alternatives to incarceration the county has put in place over the last few years are insufficient and that they create too many barriers for defendants, becoming more like probation. In addition, she said she believes some of the DA’s diversion programs are too burdensome to defendants, which can result in revocations, “and then the book’s thrown at you.”
Valdez has said that prevention options are “low-hanging fruit” in Douglas County. This community is full of activists who want to move things forward, she said, and she would put her energy into bringing people to the table to discuss what prevention programs should look like and how they would function. Incarceration would be a last resort, she said.
Valdez served as chair of the state Crime Victims Compensation Board for nine years until she retired in March. In 2018, the board distributed about $3.55 million to victims of crime, according to its annual report. Valdez said she is able to manage a budget, to know “where every cent goes” and to ensure that victims have what they need.
Valdez got her undergraduate degree in business administration and management from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. She graduated from KU’s law school in 1996 and joined its faculty in 1999. She has four daughters and a son, and she is married to Stephen McAllister, U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas.
photo by: Contributed Photo
Charles Branson, the 15-year incumbent district attorney, has said he believes his experience working within the system is what’s needed now to create change.
Branson, 50, said that when he first took office in 2005, he transitioned the DA’s office from what he saw as one that processes cases into one that solves problems. He has made a point that the office is just one piece of the local criminal justice system, though, and it must work with judges and law enforcement to change the way things are done. He said it’s a difficult position, and it’s not a place to learn on the job.
In considering whether to prosecute cases, Branson said he looks at what’s in the best interest of the public and the victim, as well as what kind of accountability is appropriate for the offender. He said his office only charges about one-third of the cases that law enforcement officers bring, and he exercises discretion in those decisions. For instance, he noted that last year, he stopped charging simple marijuana possession cases.
In recent years, Branson’s office has launched or had a hand in launching several alternatives to incarceration, such as pretrial release, enhanced diversion programming, behavioral health court and drug court. He said he does not support an expansion of the Douglas County Jail, and that some of the alternatives to incarceration are still relatively new and could continue to lower the jail’s population as they grow and expand. He said he also wants to continue looking at adding new enhanced diversion programs.
Branson said his office has recently joined GARE, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and that it is using the toolkit from that organization to examine its policies to ensure that team decisions don’t have disparate impacts on minority groups or any segment of the population. He also said his staff has completed training in implicit bias, but that staff members also need to intentionally take race into consideration to ensure that they are creating equity in a deliberate manner.
In addition, Branson’s office has recently been working to establish a restorative justice program to bring together victims and offenders and repair harm that the offenders’ behavior has caused. He said the program is designed to be sponsored by his office but led by community leaders in order to offer the community better control over the outcomes of cases and to hopefully increase satisfaction with those outcomes.
Branson has an associate of science degree in accounting and business administration from Hutchinson Community College and a bachelor of science in business administration from the University of Kansas. He graduated from KU’s law school in 1995. He is married to Kathy Branson, an administrator at West Middle School, and they have a son and a daughter.
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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