‘In a position to make some change’: Incoming Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez shares perspectives, plans

photo by: Contributed Photo

Suzanne Valdez, elected to serve as Douglas County district attorney, will be sworn in Jan. 11, 2021.

Suzanne Valdez said she loves being around people. And months before she even takes office as Douglas County’s next district attorney, she has surrounded herself with community stakeholders and her future team members.

In addition, the longtime law professor at the University of Kansas said that teaching is near and dear to her, which is why she wants to emphasize mentorship and training once she is sworn in on Jan. 11.

Valdez, 51, faced no challenger in the general election, so she essentially won when she garnered 40% of the vote in a three-way Democratic primary on Aug. 4. In the time since, she’s been spending every spare moment preparing her office for January, she said.

In an interview with the Journal-World Wednesday — held via Zoom videoconference amid a surge in new coronavirus cases — Valdez shared more about how her background has shaped her perspectives, what she plans for the Douglas County prosecutor’s office and who will hold key roles in her future administration.

Blue-collar family

Valdez has four daughters and a son, ranging in age from 15 to 26, and she is married to Stephen McAllister, U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas.

She grew up in a very large, “very hardworking, blue-collar Hispanic family” in Arizona, she said.

photo by: Contributed Photo

Suzanne Valdez, elected to serve as Douglas County district attorney, will be sworn in Jan. 11, 2021.

A lot of her family members don’t have advanced academic degrees, she said. They have a “very strong work ethic, as a matter of who we are,” she said. She’s had family members serve in the military, and she said service to the country and to the community were very important to her.

She has also had family members involved in the criminal justice system. Some relatives have been stopped by the police and profiled, she said, and that has helped to shape her perspective on criminal justice reform.

“What’s law enforcement doing in terms of ensuring public safety on the one hand, but, on the other hand, engaging in behavior or conduct where there is racial profiling, whether you’re Black or whether you’re brown or you’re part of a marginalized community?” she said. “So I have a lot of that background where it has really kind of framed how I think about that piece of it.”

Her brother was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Gulf War, and he’s had issues with drinking and driving and domestic violence when he had episodes of PTSD, she said. She doesn’t think putting people in jail is the answer to issues of behavioral health and addiction.

“That’s not to say we need to minimize the criminal conduct, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get people help,” she said.

She said she wants to find a way to hold people accountable and keep them with their community — “‘Yes, you broke the law, but what can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and so that you remain an important part of our community?'”

Asked what Valdez would tell members of the public who might be concerned that she will be too soft on crime, she said the “being tough on crime rhetoric” has led to mass incarceration across the country. In cases of poor judgment, she wants to find out what people need to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But those who need to be removed from the community will be, she said.

“There are dangerous people out there. I am not oblivious to that — I am very hypersensitive to that,” Valdez said. “We all are. Those people will be held accountable.”

Prosecutorial ethics

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 also worked as a special prosecutor for the Wyandotte County DA’s office, handling cases that involve conflicts of interest for that office’s staff.

She also served as chair of the state Crime Victims Compensation Board for nine years until she retired in March. Though she has plans specifically for crime victims in her role as DA, she said that the criminal justice system isn’t for them — it’s for the defendants, and the prosecutor’s obligation is to ensure that defendants are treated fairly and given due process.

In the past 10 years especially, she said, prosecutorial ethics have become a passion of hers. It’s part of the class she teaches at the law school, and she worked with Boston College law professor Michael Cassidy on the third edition of his book on the subject, released in September 2019.

A special rule lays out what is expected of prosecutors, and it touches on areas as diverse as charging cases, turning over evidence to defendants in a timely manner, disposing of cases and remedying unjust convictions, Valdez said.

As she focused on the facets of the rule, she began to look at what Douglas County was doing, she said. She was “becoming alarmed” that she wasn’t seeing the rule followed the way she thought it should be, and that contributed to her decision to run for office.

‘Let people do their job’

Valdez was quick to highlight what she believes the members of her team will contribute, and she frequently asked her future deputy, Joshua Seiden, to chime in during the interview.

“I’m the forest and he’s the trees,” she analogized, noting that she’s grateful that Seiden focuses on the details while she takes a more global approach.

Valdez said she plans to hire good people to be a part of her team, and she wants to let people put their own footprints on their programs and run with them. As a teacher, she said she wants to ensure that her staff is well trained, and that the area law enforcement officers also receive training to keep everyone on the same page.

Valdez said her office will have some openings, probably for entry-level attorneys, and the goal is diversity.

“Part of the benefit of having a diverse office is that you get a diversity of opinions,” Seiden said. That way, when difficult situations come up in cases and attorneys ask for advice, “you’re not getting group think. You’re not walking into an echo chamber; you’re getting a diverse array of opinions.”

Valdez also said she wants the more experienced prosecutors to team up with those who are newer to the work. Trial teams, for instance, could include an attorney with seniority as first chair and younger lawyers as second chair. She wants to formalize a mentorship program within the office and establish a system of peer reviews, she said.

photo by: Contributed Photo

Incoming Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, center, is pictured in September 2020 with her future deputy DAs, Joshua Seiden at left and David Melton at right.

Longtime Deputy DA David Melton, who has worked for the Douglas County DA’s office since 2005, will focus on administration, trial teams and prosecuting serious cases and violent crimes, Valdez said.

Attorney Emily Hartz, who also teaches at Washburn University School of Law, will lead a special victims unit in Valdez’s office. Hartz is compassionate, and she is well trained in trauma-informed response for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, Valdez said. Hartz will handle prosecution of those cases, and she’ll ensure that the rest of the DA’s office employees, and ideally law enforcement, are also brought to the table for training.

Seiden — who had practiced as a defense attorney in Douglas County since January 2012 before serving as Valdez’s campaign treasurer and then joining her team after the primary — has been working to craft policies for the future office. Both have been working to speak with community stakeholders, gather input and feedback and begin to form plans that can be implemented once Valdez takes office.

Seiden’s role will also focus on programs and alternatives to incarceration, including some new ones and some that have already been established, such as pretrial release, drug court and behavioral health court. One goal in particular with those is to expedite the process of screening candidates to see if they might be a good fit for those programs.

“Time is of the essence — whether it’s mental health treatment, whether it’s a treatment for addiction or any other type of intervention that someone may need, we can’t have people waiting two, three, four months to see if they’re going to be admitted to a program,” Seiden said.

The team also wants to implement new programs, including restorative justice and assisted outpatient treatment for those in care and treatment cases. One immediate goal once Valdez takes office is to start working on an idea for a new diversion program.

In the meantime, Valdez said she planned to continue listening to people, gathering feedback and forming relationships that could lead to robust future programs in the DA’s office.

“I kind of feel like in the last 20 years or so of my life, it’s all kind of led up to this moment where having the experience, either through family experience or watching it, keeping a pulse on it, I really feel like I’m in a position to make some change,” she said.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:

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