With a little more than a week until Election Day, the race to be the county's next district attorney is heating up and, in some ways, getting downright nasty.
Challenger Allison Jackson for months has been extremely critical of two-term incumbent Paul Gallegos, who has just recently started returning fire. When it comes down to it, both candidates seem to feel the other is simply unfit to hold what is arguably the most powerful office in the county.
In the June primary, Gallegos finished ahead of Jackson, taking 40 percent of the vote to Jackson's 37 percent. Challengers Paul Hagen and Kathleen Bryson combined to receive almost 23 percent of the vote in the primary, and their voters now seem to hold the key to the office.
Jackson and Gallegos have a contentious history together that dates back to shortly after Gallegos took office by unseating five-term incumbent Terry Farmer. Shortly after Gallegos successfully fended off a recall effort in June 2004, he fired Jackson, who had worked as a deputy district attorney in the office for a decade.
When Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman challenged Gallegos in 2006, Jackson went public with allegations surrounding her firing. Admittedly, it was an effort to help Dikeman get elected. She said she was fired because she raised questions about the conduct of a local defense attorney, accusing him of knowingly submitting a piece of altered evidence to the court. Jackson said she pushed to have her
Gallegos has largely declined to comment on the specifics of Jackson's firing -- saying it's a personnel issue and he is consequently barred from talking about it. However, he has vehemently denied that Jackson's firing had anything to do with her allegations, and insisted that he started the process of terminating her employment before she raised questions about the defense attorney's conduct.
Whatever the reasons, it's clear there is bad blood between the two. That has been apparent on the campaign trail, where Jackson has been blisteringly critical of Gallegos' tenure as district attorney and Gallegos has questioned Jackson's campaign tactics and, essentially, her honesty.
When making the case that Humboldt County is spiraling into chaos under Gallegos' watch, Jackson has repeatedly pointed to crime statistics to make her point.
Citing California Department of Justice crime data, Jackson has repeatedly said that violent crime has risen 37 percent on Gallegos' watch, while violent crime rates throughout the state have decreased. While the claim may be factually accurate, it lacks context.
In 2002, Farmer's last year in office, 504 violent crimes were committed in the county, according to the DOJ stats. The next year, Gallegos' first in office, violent crime dropped almost 28 percent, with 394 violent crimes reported for the county. Jackson's claim seems to come from taking the crime rate from Gallegos' first year in office -- the lowest rate in the county in the last 10 years -- and comparing it with 2009 when 541 violent crimes were committed in the county, a 17 percent jump from the previous year.
A more telling approach may be to compare crime rates for Farmer's final four years in office with Gallegos' first seven full years in office.
An average of 489 violent crimes were committed in each of Farmer's final four years in office, 1999-2002, while an average of 443 violent crimes were committed in each of Gallegos' first seven years in office, 2003 through 2009. Based on that approach, one could say the average violent crime rate has dropped 9 percent during Gallegos' tenure.
Jackson is right that violent crime rates statewide have trended downward over the last 10 years -- falling fairly steadily, with almost annual declines, from a total of 207,874 violent crimes committed in 1999 to a total of 174,580 in 2009, a drop of about 16 percent.
Where things get interesting -- and the picture grays -- is when you compare crime rates in Humboldt with other counties on the North Coast.
In Lake and Mendocino counties, average violent crime rates increased when comparing numbers from 1999 through 2002 with those from 2003 through 2009, with Lake County showing a 17 percent increase and Mendocino County showing a 15 percent jump. In Del Norte County, the numbers show a 3 percent decrease between the two time periods.
What's this all mean? Well, it depends who you ask and, with respect to the district attorney's race, it might not mean much at all.
David Sklansky, faculty chair of University of California Berkeley's Boalt School of Law's Center for Criminal Justice, said crime rates only tell a fraction of the story.
”I think assessing a district attorney by the crime rate is risky because lots of things that influence crime rates are beyond the control of a district attorney,” Sklansky said. “In fact, we went through a decade or two of increasing crime rates in this state and experts couldn't agree on what was driving those rates. Then, we had a remarkable turnaround and crime rates have been falling since then, and there's an astonishing lack of consensus about what's causing the crime rates to fall.”
Conviction rates tell another part of the story, according to Sklansky.
For adult felony arrests in Humboldt County, the District Attorney's Office maintained an 83 percent conviction rate in 2008 -- a rate that has held very steady through Gallegos' tenure in office and is a fraction of a percentage lower than the average for Farmer's last four years in office.
But, Sklansky cautioned, conviction rates can be misleading. A district attorney with a high conviction rate may only be taking slam-dunk cases, Sklansky said, just as a district attorney with a lower rate may be taking on cases that are inherently difficult to prove, like those involving fraud or sexual assault.
Statewide since 1999, about 83 percent of adult felony arrests have resulted in cases being filed against the defendant. The numbers, however, fluctuate greatly by county and district attorney. For example, 2005 saw Del Norte County file criminal complaints on 99.8 percent of adult felony arrests. The same year, however, only 20 percent of Lake County's adult felony arrests resulted in charges filed, according to DOJ statistics.
Humboldt County has remained remarkably consistent over the last 10 years in the number of felony arrests that result in charges being filed, according to the DOJ. Over the last four years of Farmer's tenure, his office filed criminal complaints on about 77 percent of law enforcement's adult felony arrests while Gallegos' first seven years in office saw charges filed on about 76 percent of those arrests.
Jackson said numbers don't tell the whole story, but can serve as a jumping-off point for conversation.
”Rarely can you see anything that's cause and effect,” she said.
However, Jackson said statistics reveal anomalies that need to be investigated further. In Humboldt County's case, Jackson said she feels there has been a dramatic spike in crime that needs to be looked at carefully.
”There is some reason why they are committing more crime in this county,” she said.
Gallegos is adamant that Humboldt County is a safer community than when he took office, and he believes the numbers back him up. Further, Gallegos lambasted Jackson's assertion that crime has risen 37 percent on his watch as a “gross misrepresentation.”
He said Jackson is simply comparing the lowest point with the highest point and ignoring overall trends.
”Two points do not make a trend,” Gallegos said, adding that Jackson should know better with her background in criminal justice and is trying to manipulate the numbers. “And this is someone who wants to be a prosecutor?”
While the numbers can help give voters a picture of how their district attorney performs against state averages, they are only one thing a voter should keep in mind while heading to the polls on Election Day, Sklansky said.
District attorneys are elected officials precisely because the system is designed so that they reflect the values of the communities in which they serve. Consequently, Sklansky said, voters should think about what types of cases they want to see prioritized and how they want their district attorney to work with law enforcement agencies, and look for a candidate with a criminal justice philosophy that aligns with theirs.
Editor's note: This is the first of three stories taking a closer look at the race to become Humboldt County's top law enforcement official. Part two, which will run Tuesday, will focus on the subject of plea bargains and case dispositions and the third part, which will run Thursday, will focus on the subjects of honesty and support.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or firstname.lastname@example.org.