Three people are vying to become the district attorney for Riverside County. They are incumbent Mike Hestrin; Burke Strunsky, a Superior Court judge and former longtime prosecutor; and attorney Lara Gressley.
The victor will serve as chief prosecutor for 2.4 million people and will oversee more than 250 attorney who litigate at least 50,000 cases annually. The term is for four years.
The D.A.’s office employs about 800 employees and works with a budget of more than $150 million.
Following is a Q&A that Uken Report conducted with Strunsky.
Uken Report (UR): Why specifically do you want to be the district attorney?
Burke Strunsky: I care very much about public safety and justice here in Riverside County. Our current District Attorney is making us less safe, less fair, less effective, and less compassionate. I knew that I could not fix these injustices from the bench, nor could I merely stand aside and watch as the criminal justice system that I love fell apart. I believe that Riverside County needs a district attorney who always prioritizes public safety, but who also understands that the scales of justice balance only when criminal cases are handled with compassion, clear-eyed realism, fairness, and respect for the human dignity of every victim and every defendant. That is precisely the District Attorney I will be. This is both what I know and what I am truly passionate about. When I entered this race, I entered committing every possible resource and capability I have. In essence, I am all in here. I gave up my judgeship to run for District Attorney because it’s that important that we have a change and Riverside county’s justice system has gone that far off the rails.
UR: What would you bring to the office that it’s currently lacking?
Burke Strunsky: I am the only person running for District Attorney who has served in multiple criminal justice roles. I have over 20 years’ experience as both a prosecutor and a judge. This perspective matters: having a front-row bench seat with no dog in the fight, has allowed me to have a holistic view of the criminal justice system and allowed me to develop a fundamental understanding of what justice looks like. After mastering two branches of the criminal justice system, I have the insight, knowledge, independence and sense of justice that will allow me to run a highly effective District Attorney’s Office.
UR: What is the biggest thing that separates you from incumbent DA Mike Hestrin.
- I will redirect resources toward programs that make us safe rather than mindlessly racking up statistics and headlines.
- I will build a comprehensive juvenile diversion program that will use community groups with experts in child development.
- I will direct the millions of dollars saved by not seeking the death penalty toward better victim services, testing of rape kits and toward prosecutions that actually make us safe.
- I will use mental health and drug treatment as primary alternatives to jail and prison.
- I will create a functioning, humane, countywide homeless diversion program that will not involve jail time nor onerous fines but will work closely with the structures of the statewide CareCourt.
- I will restore the separation of powers between police and prosecutors. I am not, and will never be, beholden to a particular special interest group like the RSA. I have refused to take campaign contributions from police unions and warehouse developers.
In a recent report by the ACLU, as well as a newly released article by the Desert Sun, we learned that the District Attorney’s office has not kept accurate records since Mike Hestrin has been in office. This is a devastating failure of leadership. The absence of a functioning case management system, and an inability to be able to accurately track demographic data, prevent proper analysis of office performance. Further, the DA’s office can’t identify any evidence of bias, because they literally don’t have the ability to do so. If elected, addressing this issue will be an immediate and top priority. I will also have a full audit conducted to determine the full scale of what records have been lost, as well as what data is not being adequately compiled. I will then post these thousands of data points on the DA website so that the public can evaluate our performance and determine for themselves if there are in fact patterns of bias.
I will create a fully staffed, robust “Second Look Unit” combining conviction integrity cases, prosecutor initiated resentencing cases and racial justice act cases to proactively correct past abuses.
UR: What is the biggest thing that separates you from your second opponent Lara Gressley?
Burke Strunsky: Experience. I was a prosecutor for 15 years, so I have an in-depth understanding of the inner workings of the District Attorney’s Office and the prosecutorial process as a whole. I’ve also prosecuted nearly 100 jury trials in my career.
UR: Hestrin has the support of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association and its deep pockets. How has that impacted your race, if it has?
Burke Strunsky: Yes, RSA political contributions have had an outsized impact on this race. The RSA has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hestrin’s campaign, despite the fact that the DA has mandated criminal oversight over law enforcement misconduct. This leads to a conflict of interest that is troubling when it comes to the few cases where there is an officer-involved shooting.
UR: Do you think the relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the DA’s office is too cozy? In what way? If they are close, why is that a problem?
Burke Strunsky: There needs to be cooperation between the Sheriff and the District Attorney, but the relationship between Hestrin and Bianco crosses the line. The DA has mandated criminal oversight over the Sheriff’s Department. In order to ensure this independence, conflicts of interest like those created with large influxes of police union money should be avoided. The separation of powers is necessary to ensure the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.
UR: You have attacked DA Hestrin’s record? What is it specifically about his record that troubles you?
A. Budget: Mike Hestrin’s office’s annual budget has increased by a staggering 53%, or 55 million dollars. In total, this means his office now costs us, taxpayers, $160 million each year…and growing. In a nutshell, Mike Hestrin is doing less with more. Therefore, it seems to me, if nothing else, that Mike Hestrin is just a really bad investment for Riverside County taxpayers.
B. Office Performance: Hestrin’s office filed an average of 25% fewer total cases, of which there was an average of 34% fewer felony cases filed, overall, it resolved an average of 33% fewer cases, it obtained a lower percentage of felony convictions and took fewer total cases to trial.
C. Increase in Crime: Since 2015, Riverside County’s homicide rate has increased by 70%, more than any other county in the state, according to California Department of Justice statistics. Violent crime, rapes, aggravated assaults and arsons are all up as well.
In short, Mike Hestrin, for all his tough-on-crime talk has made us less safe. This is due in large part to an overcommitment to the old school “tough on crime” ideology. These overly punitive policies have failed to be effective on crime. The public safety crisis we are currently experiencing will not be resolved by passing blame and refusing to be honest about the challenges we face.
UR: Would you ever impose the death penalty? Why or why not?
Burke Strunsky: You likely already know that in any given year, Riverside County sends more people to death row than any other county in the nation. But what you may not know-and-I suspect- what Mike Hestrin doesn’t want you to know- is that despite millions of your public safety dollars spent in pursuit of this penalty, not a single person sentenced to death in Riverside County has been executed since John F. Kennedy was in the White House. In fact, the last time any Riverside County conviction resulted in an actual execution was on November 29, 1961. So, I believe we must ask how a punishment that has not been imposed since literally a decade before Mike Hestrin was even born can possibly be a deterrent to crime or a friend to justice?
Nevertheless, I am not running for District Attorney to debate the virtues or morality of capital punishment. Those on death row stand convicted of committing utterly cruel and inhumane acts. As a former homicide prosecutor, I know all too well how murder tears at the fabric of the lives of the loved ones who are left behind.
But this is precisely why I believe that an honest, heartfelt, and undoubtedly painful conversation with these victims’ families is long overdue. We—and, frankly, I include myself in this group—have been chasing a punishment that now exists only in theory. So, in my view, it makes a whole lot more sense to use our scarce public safety resources to seek punishments that we know we can—and should—impose.
We cannot responsibly ignore the fact that the least expensive death penalty trial costs taxpayers about a million dollars more than the most expensive life without the possibility of parole trial.
Further, on the most fundamental level, a District Attorney must never lose sight of the two core functions of any prosecutor: keeping people safe and getting true justice for victims. What this means to me here is, that we must speak the truth, we must exercise moral courage, and we must apply common sense to the death penalty. There is no escape from the disquieting truth that the death penalty in Riverside County has become an exorbitantly priced FALSE promise.
Therefore, if elected, I will NOT seek the death penalty going forward on these cases but will seek life without the possibility of parole so we can actually use all available public safety resources to effectively fight and punish violent crime.
UR: The D.A. is an office with a budget of more than $150 million and about 800 employees, who include over 100 investigators and prosecutors. What experience do you have leading this large of an organization?
Burke Strunsky: During my tenure as a Superior Court Judge, I oversaw 1000’s of the most serious criminal cases, which included Drug Court, Juvenile Court and the Felony Vertical Calendar. Managing a courtroom involves a significant number of staff, in addition to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, and witnesses. I’m experienced with managing a large number of personnel in an extremely busy environment. Also, having been a prosecutor for 15 years, I understand the budgetary needs of the prosecutorial process and the complexities of managing such a large organization. On day one, I will make good, experienced hires to bring a wealth of management experience on board. We urgently need to bring fiscal responsibility and balance back to the Riverside County DA’s office. This is part of why I ran for District Attorney. I could no longer stand aside and watch as talented attorneys leave the office in droves and the community becomes less safe, all while the budget is up 53%. We need a change.
UR: Anything you’d like to add?
Burke Strunsky: On the bench, I served in Drug Court, witnessing first-hand the impact of mental health and addiction issues on public safety. I also served in Juvenile Court and saw the impact of the overcriminalization of children and lack of societal support for those coming from the foster system, high crime, or high poverty areas.
As DA, I will focus on prosecuting violent crimes, while also saving taxpayer dollars by treating the root causes of crime and recidivism.
- Burke Strunsky: Burke Strunsky