Candidate Q&A: Meet the Three Candidates Running for Riverside County District Attorney

Table of Contents Lara GressleyMichael HestrinBurke Strunsky Lara Gressley is an appellate attorney with more

Lara Gressley is an appellate attorney with more than a decade of experience. Burke Strunsky stepped away from his California judgeship after almost five years of service to run for Riverside County district attorney. Mike Hestrin is the incumbent district attorney who’s been in that position for eight years.

These are the three candidates who appear on this year’s primary ballot. The top two vote-getters on June 7 will advance to November’s general election—unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, in which case that candidate will earn election to the office.

Raised in Northern California, Gressley was a standout student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before studying law at the Santa Clara University School of Law and Oxford University in England. She began her career in Riverside County as a deputy public defender, before becoming deputy county counsel, and then a court-appointed trial attorney. Today, she and her husband live in the Temecula Valley, where they’re raising their son.

Incumbent Mike Hestrin was born in the Coachella Valley. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in history, he went on to study law at Stanford University, before beginning his professional career as a line prosecutor in the Riverside County District Attorney’s office. Today, Hestrin lives in Murrieta with his wife and children.

Burke Strunsky, obtained his bachelor’s degree at George Washington University before earning his law degree at the University of San Francisco School of Law. He has taken a leave of absence from his Riverside County Superior Court judge position to run for district attorney. Prior to being elected a judge in June 2016, he worked in the Riverside District Attorney’s Office for 15 years as a prosecutor. He created the nonprofit organization The Humanity of Justice Foundation with his wife, Geraldine.

The Independent asked each candidate the same slate of six questions; here are the answers, edited only for style and clarity.


Lara Gressley

Why do you want to become the Riverside County District Attorney, and what will be your two major priorities if you are elected?

I have been an attorney working in the criminal-justice system for most of my over-19-year career, and during that time, I have seen a whole lot of injustice. I’ve seen guilty people set free. I’ve seen innocent people convicted. And I realized, over the course of my career, in doing criminal defense work and trial work, and in the last decade or so, focusing on post-conviction work trying to undo wrongful convictions, and trying to set innocent people free, that it is absolutely an extremely difficult task to undo a wrong, to undo unrighteous convictions. What I discovered is the way to do that is to serve as the district attorney. Then, I began to realize all the different reasons why being a D.A. makes sense from the standpoint of wanting to bring much-needed reform to our criminal-justice system. It really all begins with the D.A. Law enforcement arrests people, but the D.A. has the ultimate decision on how to file a case, and how to handle a case, how to prosecute it, and what type of punishment. Many, many times, the prosecution has the ultimate say in even the punishment, and they are certainly very persuasive with the judge when it comes to punishment.

Lara Gressley

So it really made sense for me, because I want to use my career to just make positive changes to the criminal-justice system, and to undo the wrongs that have occurred, and also to start prosecuting in a holistic way where we take everything into account. And it makes sense. It makes sense for public safety to prevent crime before it happens, and then when it does happen, to charge appropriately, and then see it through to the very end and prevent recidivism on the outside. So, after the punishment happens, and the time is served, (we need to make) sure that we do what’s necessary to prevent the person from re-offending, because then they would just be re-victimizing people in our community.

So, because I have that perspective, I felt called to stand up and do something about it. I’ve been in Riverside County primarily for most of my 19-year career. I’m very familiar with everything that goes on here, and I believe in the law. I love the law, and I feel that this is what I’m called to do.

Now, I’d like to do a whole lot of things when I get in there, but you asked for the top two (priorities). I think the No. 1 thing would be that we need to end the practice of over-charging criminal offenses. For as long as I can remember, there has been a kind of “win at all costs” mentality that I’ve witnessed in the D.A.’s office. It stems from just wanting to get convictions, wanting to keep the stats up, wanting to win versus what is justice in this particular case. I believe that we need to re-program the whole thing to be, ‘What should we charge?’ and not, ‘What can we charge?’ There might be five different crimes that we can file in a particular case given what the police report says. But if we delve a bit deeper into the case, and we look at who the suspect is, and (look) into the defendant, we find that maybe only one felony is appropriate. Or, maybe it’s a misdemeanor that’s really appropriate. What’s happened with this over-charging is that it creates leverage. So, it gets quick guilty pleas from people who are in jail, and they want to get out. Or, if they’re facing a huge amount of time—let’s say 20 years, and then they’re offered five—then they say, ‘OK, let’s take five, because I don’t really want to risk (a longer sentence) going forward.’ So people end up pleading a lot of times to things they didn’t do, and it contributes to our jail overcrowding problem, which is a huge other issue that I want to tackle. So, there are all sorts of reasons why over-charging is bad. It’s wrong, and it’s injustice. I want to immediately correct that, and give the line deputies the incentive to always do what is right. It’s not about winning; it’s about justice. From the very beginning, we’ll make sure that we’re serving justice by filing appropriate charges, and maybe by giving second chances to those who deserve it, like youthful offenders, to prevent them from having a record if they deserve to go through the diversion process, or something like that. We can actually try to let young people have a second chance at making it right without having a criminal record. which then leads them down a whole different path in their lives.

The other big topic would be crime prevention and rehabilitation. I think I can put those into one category, which is part of my holistic approach to prosecution. We’re going to do some major crime prevention work. What that will look like is essentially really engaging with the community. My vision is sort of a big round table in the office, and inviting people to come in from various agencies, but really people who are on the front lines dealing with homeless crime, and figuring out what causes these problems, and getting to the root of these problems. We need to really ramp up rehabilitation and deal with mental health more effectively. You know, the running joke is that someone gets 51-50’d (involuntarily restrained), and they go downtown. Then they make it back to the location where they were picked up before the law enforcement officer does. So, what is going on that’s preventing us from actually having an impact in a positive way? It kind of goes in line with rehabilitation, but we really need to ramp up our rehabilitation efforts. For some time, it has been sorely lacking in Riverside County. We now have collaborative courts, finally. This has been a long time coming, and the D.A. needs to play an active role in that process to make sure that people are getting rehabilitated. Historically, rehabilitation has been objected to by the prosecutors. So, there’s been this sort of tough-on-crime mentality where they don’t accept residential rehabilitation in lieu of jail, because they want the punishment over the rehabilitation. And what has happened is that we’re incarcerating people, and like I said before, they’re getting out and just re-offending, because they’re not rehabilitated.

So those are my general perspectives on things that I need to accomplish and really start creating guidelines for line deputies in how to handle cases. Again, I’m proposing a homeless crime task force that would essentially bring together all the players in the criminal-justice system, as well as nonprofits and rehabilitation programs, to find solutions. I don’t claim to have all of the answers myself, but I certainly can lead the discussion, and I can find the answers if I speak to all these people. And everybody can bring their thoughts on one problem and one solution. Then, maybe I’ll find a way, because I’m absolutely determined to do so.

What can the office of Riverside County District Attorney do to relieve the pressure on our judicial system, which manifests itself in the slowness of trial progress, backlogs of court cases and jail overcrowding?

The slowness (of trial progress) and the jail overcrowding kind of go hand-in-hand, so I’ll address those two first, and then I’ll address the backlog. The slowness, a lot of the time, comes from the fact that defense attorneys—and here’s my perspective as a defense attorney coming into play, which will serve this county well—do not get discovery from the DAs quickly enough. For example, there may be a 911 call or body-worn camera footage that the defense attorney needs in order to prepare for a preliminary hearing in a felony case, and it can take 4-6 months to get it. If it’s a felony, then your client is probably in jail, especially if you’re a court-appointed attorney, because they can’t afford bail to get out. So, you have a situation where the prosecution of the case is delayed because of the basic discovery that any defense attorney absolutely needs in order to effectively represent their client under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It’s those delays that can create problems in our jails. I can tell you that in 2020—which was the last recorded data that I found on inmates in our county’s jails—roughly 80% of those people incarcerated in our county jails are awaiting resolution of their case or awaiting trial. So, we have a huge amount of people in our jails who are just waiting for their cases to be tried or resolved. And then what happens? People are just sitting in there waiting, and are presumed innocent because they have not been convicted, and then people get convicted and get a jail sentence as part of their conviction, (but) they get kicked out because there’s no room. So, we have guilty people getting out without serving their sentence, and we have presumed innocent people staying in and taking up the beds. So, we need to speed up this process of getting discovery, and the DA can certainly do that. The DA can get that information from law enforcement in a timely manner to make sure that the defense attorneys are getting their discovery (materials) as soon as it’s absolutely possible. And, the other thing that will happen is that it’s going to save taxpayer dollars, because it costs roughly $60,000 to incarcerate one inmate for one year in Riverside County jails. So, if you’re talking 4-6 months in delays, you can just look at the numbers and see how much money is being wasted.

Another problem, too, is that we’ve had a pretty big exit of experienced line deputies (from the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office) over the last few years. I have my opinions about why. There’s low office morale for various reasons, including a lack of discretion—line deputies can’t resolve cases—which adds to the slowness factor, since they always have to go up above to get approval, and that takes time. We’re losing very experienced and talented prosecutors, and replacing them with less-experienced prosecutors a lot of times. So, this is kind of a problem. We have to make sure that we keep the talent. We have to keep the experienced prosecutors there, and make sure that they’re being treated with respect and getting the training and the tools that they need.

Onto the backlog. There is a huge backlog right now because of COVID-19. I think the last number I heard was about 1,900 (cases in the queue), although I’m not sure if that’s accurate at this time. So, I have some ideas for that. No. 1, we need to start resolving cases. The incumbent claims that he’s allowing these rock-bottom deals, but it’s just not true. Again, here is where my defense-attorney perspective comes into play, because I know the entire defense bar here at my law firm, and even though I focus on criminal writs and appeals, they do criminal defense. Of course, I’m privy to what’s going on (in this regard). It’s just not the case that there are rock-bottom offers being dealt. It’s not happening. So, No. 1, we need to make sure that cases are being resolved for fair deals. And the reason I know they can be resolved is because, many times, what happens is you have a case that you’re handling, and it takes months and months and months to get before a trial judge. Again, it’s because of discovery delays; witnesses aren’t available, whatever. Then, you finally get in front of a trial judge, and all of a sudden, the case settles, because the trial judge is able to bring (the opposing attorneys) together and say, “Hey, what can you guys work out?” That’s because they want to free up their court room for another case if they can, right? This happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prepared a trial that ended up settling on the day of trial. It’s happened more times than I can really count in my career.

So, what I’d like to do is propose the expansion of our mandatory settlement conference courts (MSC), and we have a judge who does this. You set up for MSC. You go in, and you see if you can work out a deal, and the judge is kind of able to go back and forth between the two and say, “Well, what about this, or what about that?” and just help the resolution of the case. Or, maybe the negotiating process has just broken down, so the judge sort of facilitates that, and maybe he puts a little pressure on, right? So, there’s that aspect too. I would like to expand that (MSC courts presence), and see if we can get more judges involved, and maybe hold them every day for a while. Whatever it takes, because otherwise, the problem is that we’re going to be dismissing cases for speedy-trial rights violations. Eventually, it’s going to happen that emergency orders aren’t being done anymore. Then, basically, we’ll be in a situation where someone’s going to be shouting their statutory speedy-trial rights, and we’re going to have to dismiss cases. Now, the incumbent claims that, “Well, the defendants are taking advantage of this, and that’s why cases aren’t settling.” Honestly, in my mind, that may be a small portion. But, if defendants are given a reasonable offer, they’re going to do it, because they want to get out of jail, move on or get the case resolved. There are all kinds of reasons why they want to settle, and there’s no guarantee that a case is going to be dismissed for a speedy-trial rights violation. Back in 2008 or so, we had a problem in our courts back in the Rod Pacheco (former Riverside County district attorney) era, and we had this problem, and I was trying cases back then. People were getting sent to Blythe court, and then people would opt out of Blythe by signing a paper that was a peremptory challenge to the judge to get out of going to Blythe. And then, you get an extra day. I saw that happen over and over again. It was a disaster. It really was. We shut down civil courts to try (criminal) cases, and we really need to avoid that, if possible, because civil litigants deserve to have their day in court as well.

So, we have to find a way. And, No. 1, I would propose that deals are going to get more reasonable. People aren’t going to get off scot-free, but we’re going to prevent the dismissal of cases, because that would be an injustice. And then, we’re going to expand MSC courts. That’s what I would be working for.

Do you believe the state should end or de-emphasize cash bail?

We need to reform our cash bail system. That much is clear, and the reason is that it’s just an absolute discriminatory practice when you have one person with money, and one person without money, and the person with money gets out, even though they’re both charged with the same crime. So, we have to do something. We can’t have people being incarcerated merely because they’re poor, and it also relates back to the jail overcrowding problem which we want to solve. My perspective is that we cannot end it overnight. If you remember, the proposal (Senate Bill 10) didn’t pass. It was not the right solution for various reasons. One problem is that judges do not feel safe in allowing people to get out, and the D.A. doesn’t either, sometimes. So we have to deal with that fear. We have to recognize that’s a real fear, that someone’s going to commit another crime, or hurt somebody, or drink and drive again, or whatever the case may be, and we have to protect the public. That has to be of utmost concern always.

What I would like to do is start finding ways to make sure that the public is safe, so that people who can’t afford bail can still get out. So, we need to start looking for monitoring programs. We need to start looking for ways to make sure that individuals are supervised and monitored, so that they can be released if they can’t afford bail. The reason is because the California Supreme Court case “In Re Humphrey.” Basically, that case held that if a person cannot afford the bail, then the court is to go to the least-restrictive alternative means of keeping the public safe. The problem, though, is because we don’t have those monitoring programs and supervision (solutions) in play, then we have judges who say, “Well, even if they can’t afford it, I’m just going to preventively detain them.” So then you’re going to have so many preventive detentions that the jail overcrowding problem is going to get way, way worse. So, we have to do something. We have to start moving in that direction. We cannot end it overnight, because if we did, we would have judges preventively detaining people, and we need to make sure that the public is safe. So, we need to have something else in place to do that.

As far as ending cash bail, yes, I think ultimately, in an ideal situation, we would have a different system. But like I said, we cannot do that overnight, because we need bail. It serves a very valid function. For the people who can afford it, it does serve a purpose. It’s important, too, that you can put conditions on bail if there are extra measures that need to be taken. But ultimately, we need to work toward that goal, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that there’s a real fear on the part of the D.A. and judges that public safety could be harmed. Judges do not want to be in the headlines of the newspaper the next day if they let a person out who went and killed somebody. So there’s always this fear, and we have to be real about that. We have to recognize these fears and deal with them, and address them, in appropriate ways. So my solution is to begin that process of looking for the right program, looking for ways to supervise people, and finding creative, innovative solutions to the problem, because we absolutely cannot be incarcerating people merely because they’re poor. It’s just wrong. I am in favor of reforming it.

Is it appropriate for a candidate running for Riverside County District Attorney to accept campaign donations from any law-enforcement employees’ union?

No. Part of my goal (in running for the office of district attorney) is to earn back the people’s trust. We cannot have even the appearance of bias, especially when it comes to decisions on whether to prosecute law enforcement or not. And, historically in this office, and especially with this incumbent, we have not seen a lot of law enforcement being prosecuted. In fact, the Costco shooting case is a perfect example. They convened a grand jury and then didn’t file charges, but the (California) attorney feneral did. He (the perpetrator) was fired from the LAPD, and the (victim’s) family won a $17 million verdict from a federal jury in the case. This was the Corona Costco shooting case when an off-duty police officer opened fire and shot Kenneth French and killed him, and severely injured his parents. I’ve been harping on this case for quite a while, and the reason is because charges should have been filed, and they weren’t. And the question is, “Why?” It begs the questions as to what did the hundreds of thousands of dollars (in law-enforcement union campaign donations) that’s been given to the incumbent buy? So, that’s the question. Does that affect, or jeopardize, or threaten his objectivity? I believe that it does, and I believe that in the eyes of the public, it does. So we need to be aware of that and make sure that we’re earning back the public’s trust. I don’t believe in taking money from lots of different places, including law enforcement unions and PACs. Also, big party money would be something that I wouldn’t want, either, because (the District Attorney’s Office) is a nonpartisan position, and my objective and my commitment is to stay conflict-free, so that everybody in Riverside County knows I represent them, and not some political party or just law enforcement.

What is your favorite “me” time activity?

I am a singer, and I’ve been a singer for many, many years. I’ve played in bands, and sung at the worships at my church, and stuff like that. There’s some of my stuff on YouTube, and I’ve played in all types of different places in Riverside County over the years. So, I suppose my “me” time would consist of playing music and singing. I have lots of different things that I love to do with my family and my 7-year old son. I do a lot of other creative things as well, but I think singing would probably be at the top of my list as far as what I would enjoy doing. And, I’m singing the national anthem at the Lake Elsinore Storm game next month.

Do you have an additional message for voters that you’d like to convey?

I’d like everyone to know the fact that I’ve been a defense attorney does not make me soft on crime. Sometimes, I think there’s a fear that I would not be punishing people for their crimes, or that I’d be letting too many people out, or whatever. That’s not who I am. What I tell people is that I’m not tough on crime, and I’m not soft on crime; I’m just on crime. So, that’s the message I have. I don’t believe in blanket policies, and also, I’m “no party preference” in this nonpartisan race. Again, that goes in line with my not being beholden to any particular party or influence, and really being conflict-free and committed to serving everyone, and making sure the law serves everyone equally.


Michael Hestrin

Why do you want to remain the Riverside County District Attorney, and what will be your two major priorities if you are re-elected?

Michael Hestrin

I’ve been the district attorney for eight years, and I’ve been with the District Attorney’s Office 25 years, and I think I’m the best person and the best qualified to continue to lead the District Attorney’s Office through what has been a very tumultuous time in, not only our history, but in the evolution and growth of California’s criminal justice system.

You know, when we look around at how the state is doing, and how other counties are doing in terms of criminal justice, I think there’s some reason for alarm—not panic, but there is some reason for alarm. We’ve seen crime rates going up in other counties, and Riverside County has stood out. We’ve remained a safer county than many of our neighbors, specifically Los Angeles (County) and San Bernardino County, which is similarly situated.

So, there are many reasons for that, but I think primarily, the main reasons are that in our county, we have leaders here that have not cut police resources, and have not gutted the D.A.’s office. We have sheriffs and police chiefs who enforce the law. And, of course, in my office, we enforce the law as it’s written, and not as anyone wishes it was written. We take a hard line on violent and serious offenders. So, I think at a time when there’s now a debate in the country about prosecutors, and the so-called progressive-prosecutor movement, I want to make sure that I stay in office to keep the people of this county safe. I feel very strongly that our criminal-justice system can be, and should be, reformed, but the current batch of reformers and progressive prosecutors are not really seeking to reform. They’re seeking to tear down, and so far, their model has been a disaster. And I’ll stand by that statement.

So my two main priorities would be to continue proactive efforts, such as the gang task force—we have a gang impact team—and then, for example, our task force that goes after online predators. So (we should) continue those kinds of proactive efforts to make sure we take the most dangerous individuals off our streets. And then, secondly, I think we need to expand our efforts (around) what are called “collaborative courts.” Collaborative courts are veterans court, mental health court, drug court and now we have a homeless court. When I say expand those efforts, I’d like to see more people included in those, because those are innovative programs that really get to the heart of recidivism. So those are going to be my two main goals: expanding our collaborative courts, and our efforts to deal with things like homelessness, an issue that’s plaguing everybody across the state, and making sure we keep the pressure on the most serious and violent offenders. That means those criminals out there who are using guns, committing acts of violence, rapists and predators, and things like that.

What can the office of Riverside County District Attorney do to relieve the pressure on our judicial system, which manifests itself in the slowness of trial progress, backlogs of court cases and jail overcrowding?

Obviously, the District Attorney’s Office and the policies of the district attorney play a critical role in everything you just mentioned. But, we’re one part of a whole system, and we do our part, but we work closely with, for example, the public defender—and I’m proud to have the endorsement of the public defender, as an example—but we all have to play our role, and despite the fact that I take a tough line on violent and serious offenses, we’re also quite reasonable when it comes to resolving cases where we can. We don’t take an approach that says, “Well, we’re never going to resolve this kind of case,” or, “Every one of these kinds of cases has to go to prison.” We really look at each case. That’s really the charge of the district attorney, to seek justice in every single individual case, and we’ve been successful at that. As a matter of fact, the judicial council puts out stats from time to time, I think it’s every couple of years, and their most recent publication of judicial stats of how the courts are working show that we do quite well. The last time they put out stats was for 2020, and I think they published them in 2021, but it covered 2019 and 2020. And what it showed was that Riverside County had done the most jury trials of any county in the state of California, outside of Los Angeles County, which is five times our population. Also, (it showed that) we had resolved the most cases of any county in the state of California, again outside of L.A.

So, what we can do to relieve the pressure is to meet our opposing counsel half way and be willing to listen. We do that. And the stats show that. It’s not just my opinion. But we do that, and we continue to do that. We have embraced this idea of collaborative courts and alternatives to sentencing where appropriate. We can use alternatives to incarceration where it’s appropriate. And that’s the rub, right? The defense probably always thinks that more things are appropriate, and we think less are appropriate, but I’m not casting aspersions at them. They’re doing their job. I get it. And we’re doing our job. Hopefully, if the system works right, we meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re able to make the courts work. If somebody’s suffering or grappling with addiction, and that’s causing their criminality, and it’s suggested to us that maybe we should put this individual in a specialized court where they can be supervised and go through intensive drug rehabilitation to see if we can get them out of the criminal justice system once and for all, then, look, we’re all ears. We’re open to that. On the other hand, if it’s a rapist and a murderer, no, not so much.

Do you believe the state should end or de-emphasize cash bail?

It’s hard to answer that, because it’s such a complicated question, but I don’t in any way want to dodge a question, so as of right now, I would say, no, I don’t favor ending cash bail, because all of the proposals I’ve seen in California to end cash bail have not (provided) any alternative other than just, “Hey, we’re going to release a bunch of people with a promise to return and just hope for the best.” And where ending cash bail has been tried in other parts of the country, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s been a disaster. We’ve seen people who are coming into the criminal-justice system and then waltzing out the same day. We seem to be emboldening their criminal activity rather than diminishing it.

I think it’s a fair proposal to say that we’d like to make the bail system more fair. I don’t oppose that, and we should be trying to make it more fair. But I think that we have to balance that impulse and desire with public safety and protecting the public. I’ll give you an example: I don’t believe that the federal system uses cash bail. They use a different system, which is really based on (whether or not) this person is a threat to public safety. But, in the federal system, a lot more individuals end up waiting for their trial in custody. I think the problem with the federal system is that they don’t deal with the volume (of cases) that we do at the state level. So it’s a thorny issue, and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. I don’t favor the current proposals for ending cash bail, because I don’t think we’ve thought enough about how we do this in a way that doesn’t endanger the public.

Is it appropriate for a candidate running for Riverside County District Attorney to accept campaign donations from any law-enforcement employees’ union?

Obviously, my answer would have to be yes, because I have accepted such donations. And what I would say is that the district attorney has criminal oversight over everybody in the county. So, implicit in the idea that we accept donations is the fact that we have to be trusted to do our jobs despite any donations. That is my position. I take donations from groups who support me in law enforcement, but that in no way means that I’m going to be biased, or favor that group if one of their members is under investigation. And, to make that point—I mean, the district attorney handles (close to) 50,000 cases a year, and just a few dozen (involve) officer uses of force. So, these law-enforcement groups are our partners when we build cases. Day in and day out, the vast majority of the work we do here at the District Attorney’s Office is to build criminal cases with detectives or police officers, and they’re the ones who submit these cases to us. So, they’re the ones who support my candidacy, and they’re supporting me because they want an office that partners with them and builds these cases, and doesn’t disregard their work. And they’re seeing what’s happening in some other places, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where quite the opposite is happening. You’ve got the sheriff saying, “My deputies are building criminal cases, and then they go to the D.A.’s Office, and those cases just die. So, people are not being held accountable.” That’s why you’re seeing this outpouring of support from law enforcement. They want a district attorney, and they want to make sure that they have a district attorney who understands his or her role, which is to work with law enforcement and to seek justice in the courts. So, it’s appropriate. Quite frankly, I think my opponents would be singing quite a different tune if they were the ones who managed to garner that support. Of course, they’re getting up on a soap box and saying, “I don’t want to take any donations (from law enforcement groups).” That’s because they weren’t going to get them. Both of (my opponents) are “progressive prosecutors” (who are) somewhat anti-police, anti-law enforcement. That seems to be the theme of our time. They weren’t going to get those endorsements. It’s kind of like me jumping up and saying, “I won’t take any money from the ACLU or George Soros.” I’m not the type who’s going to get those funds.

What is your favorite “me” time activity?

I have a great wife, and I have wonderful children, so I love spending time with them. Beyond that, I love the outdoors, so we’re people who fish and hike, and we love to get out. You know, for all of its faults, California is still a beautiful state, and the western United States is amazing. So, whenever I can try to get away from the burdens of the job, I try to remember there’s a beautiful wide world out there, and those are the moments when I can take a breath and get away from it all.

Do you have an additional message for voters that you’d like to convey?

What I would say is that I was born in Riverside County, and I’ve spent every day of my professional life being a Riverside County prosecutor. I never worked anywhere else. I was hired right out of law school, and I’ve spent the entire time in this office, which includes the last eight years (as district attorney). I’ve handled all kinds of cases through the years. I (handled) crimes against children for five years. Then, I did homicide cases, (including) some of the big cases, for 10 years. So I know the people of this county. I was born in this county; I live here, and I’m raising a family here. I care a lot about the safety of the people who live here, and I care about this office. So, I’m asking the public for their continued trust and confidence, and to return proven leadership back to the D.A.’s Office for another four years.


Burke Strunsky

Why do you want to become the Riverside County District Attorney, and what will be your two major priorities if you are elected?

Burke Strunsky

I’ve been a judge for the last five years, handling principally serious criminal matters, and before that, I was a prosecutor for 15 years, so I’ve handled some of the most serious cases here in Riverside County. But the reason why I stepped down from my judgeship (is that) I had a front-row seat to some tremendous injustices, inefficiencies, and the ineffectiveness of our current district attorney. This was causing great injustices and public-safety issues within the county, and I felt I could no longer stand aside and watch as these bad things happened. Therefore, I stepped down from my judgeship to run for district attorney.

Now, as to the second part of your question, my No. 1 priority is public safety. We know right now that Riverside County’s homicide rate has gone up 70% since Mike Hestrin was elected. So it’s time that we focus resources on prosecutions proven to make us safe, rather than mindlessly racking up statistics and headlines. One of the promises or vows that I’ve made if elected is not to pursue the death penalty, and the reason is because we know that the death penalty has not been actually implemented on a Riverside County case since 1961; that’s 60 years. Yet we spend millions of taxpayer money on those cases every year—money that could be spent on victim services, prosecutions of crimes that actually make us safer, and (going) toward doing things like testing rape kits and other really good criminal-justice measures that get justice for victims and do make us safer.

Another priority that I’ll work on Day 1 is to create a “second look unit.” I call it a second look unit, because it will combine what are typically called conviction-integrity cases and prosecutor-initiated re-sentencing cases to make sure that we haven’t made mistakes in the past, and to correct those mistakes when we have. It’s critical that we always recognize that confidence in our current justice system always means that we’re correcting past mistakes—and having confidence in the justice system is what makes it much more effective, whether that’s in picking juries, or in getting cooperation with the public in the investigation of cases. When the public has confidence in the justice system, we, frankly, become safer.

What can the office of Riverside County District Attorney do to relieve the pressure on our judicial system, which manifests itself in the slowness of trial progress, backlogs of court cases and jail overcrowding?

So, this is a critical question that is particularly relevant to Riverside County right now. We have approximately 1,900 cases currently set for jury trial. And there are 13—that’s one three—trial courts. So, you can see that literally, there are approximately 150 cases per trial court when those cases need to go to trial. We have had extensions given by the California Supreme Court over the last two years for COVID, with the idea being that the D.A.’s Office would resolve low-level and mid-level cases, and allow these court rooms to be available for the most serious cases, like the murders, the robberies, and the rapes. Instead, what’s happened is the district attorney has not worked to resolve those cases, and so we are layering a public safety crisis upon a public safety crisis. Right now, we know that crime is way up, especially homicides, and as I said, they’re up 70% since Mr. Hestrin was elected. And now, we’re faced with a situation where once the extensions are lifted—which will happen sometime this summer—we’re going to see a couple of thousand cases hit their last day for trial, all at the same time. And that’s going to cause an absolute disaster within the judicial system. We need to work to resolve low-level and mid-level cases, so that we can take some of that pressure off the courts and avoid mass dismissals of cases, which would obviously be a tremendous injustice to the alleged victims of those crimes.

So, what we need to do is make sure that we use drug treatment and mental-health treatment as reasonable alternatives to divert some of these cases where the core issue is a mental-health or drug-treatment problem. Then, we can use the trial courts for those most serious cases, where mental health or drug treatment is not appropriate. So, those are some of the ways that we can relieve some of the backlog of the current trial courts and also people who are currently incarcerated (and awaiting trial).

Do you believe the state should end or de-emphasize cash bail?

This is a very contentious issue. Let me define what it means to end cash bail: Ending cash bail does not mean that everyone is released pre-trial. I think that’s the common misunderstanding, that if we end cash bail, everybody who’s pending trial will be released, and that’s not what ending cash bail means.

Ending cash bail means that we are no longer going to link someone’s freedom to money. We’re going to use other metrics to decide whether that person should be in custody, or out of custody. Those metrics will look principally at two things: whether that person’s a public safety threat, and whether that person will reliably return to court. Those are the core (reasons) why we have bail in the first place—one, to make sure that the public is kept safe, but two, also to make sure that people come to court. We are not prepared to come off of, or no longer have, cash bail, because we don’t have the infrastructure of a pre-trial service department that will allow enough home detentions, drug testing and other monitoring to make sure that the public is kept safe when someone is released from custody. But fundamentally, if you link money to freedom, you’re always going to have an inequitable system. So, we need to look at that and say, “We need to find a way, so that everyone—no matter what their income or the money in their bank account, or whether they own a home—is treated the same way when they come before a court. They’re judged, not on the money that they have in their pocket, but on whether they are a public-safety threat or whether they will reliably come to court.” So we need to work to scale off cash bail, but we’re not quite ready to abolish it. Let me restate that: We are not ready to abolish it, because we do not have a robust pre-trial service department that is capable of protecting the public.

Is it appropriate for a candidate running for Riverside County District Attorney to accept campaign donations from any law-enforcement employees’ union?

The answer is no, and I have vowed not to accept contributions from law-enforcement unions. And to be clear, I’ve worked with law-enforcement officers all my career as a prosecutor, side by side. When I was in the homicide unit, we were out at crime scenes at all times of the day and night. I have the utmost respect for law enforcement. That being said, one of the chief responsibilities of the district attorney is, of course, to be a mandated overseer of law-enforcement misconduct. The district attorney acts as oversight of the police department for officer-involved misconduct cases. Now, there’s legislation that’s already pending in Sacramento that’s passed the state Senate which essentially says that if a prosecutor has taken money from a law-enforcement union, and later, an officer in that union is accused of misconduct, the district attorney must recuse himself or herself from that case. It makes sense, because there is an inherent conflict of interest. In other words, the money that is donated or given to elect a prosecutor is money from the same organization that will ultimately defend the officer who is accused of misconduct. So, this is an inherent conflict of interest, and one that is very troubling. It goes back to something I talked about before, which is that the community has to have confidence in law enforcement for law enforcement to function appropriately. The community will not have sufficient confidence in law enforcement if the community believes that law enforcement officers will not be held accountable for proven misconduct. We know that the (state’s) attorney general has already stepped in to prosecute a case that Mr. Hestrin has refused to prosecute against an officer. And, we also know that Mr. Hestrin receives more money from law enforcement unions than any other elected prosecutor in the country. So, this is a particularly salient issue here in Riverside County, because we have a prosecutor who takes more money, and was elected principally on the money from police unions.

What is your favorite “me” time activity?

Well, I have an 11-year-old daughter, so a lot of the “me” is spent with her. She is the pride of my life, and she is one of the reasons why I work so hard in the public sector to make our community safe. So, a lot of very enjoyable time is spent with her. I also have a French bulldog puppy, and I spend a tremendous amount of time with the two of them. That’s really my enjoyment in life right now.

Do you have an additional message for voters that you’d like to convey?

Yes, and it’s this: Riverside County, by population, is bigger than 15 states. It’s more populous than 15 states. So, if Riverside County were a state, we would be the 36th-most-populous state in the country. I say that to make people focus on how important a countywide race like this is, and how many people are affected by a criminal-justice system that has gone off the rails with this administration. So much can be done to make us safer, and to make us more just in this county. And, so many people’s lives will be changed for the better if people get involved, and they realize that it’s not a choice between keeping people safe and being just. We can have both. I believe that the justice system should be one where the principal goal is to keep us safe, but I also want a criminal-justice system that we all can be proud of. Frankly, I believe that Riverside County needs a district attorney right now who always prioritizes the public safety, but also one that 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. And I think now is the time to make this change. We’re going to do it in a way that protects the public, but also one that makes sure we have true justice on every case, every day.