In forum, Democrats running for Douglas County district attorney discuss prosecutorial discretion

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Democratic candidates running for Douglas County’s top prosecutor job were advised to be specific and set themselves apart Saturday during a forum at the Lawrence Public Library.

Candidates for district attorney were asked about their background and experience; how they will build and retain competent staff to carry out the office’s responsibilities and represent them; what values will guide their prosecutorial discretion; and why voters should choose them.

Incumbent DA Suzanne Valdez, Tonda Hill and Dakota Loomis will face off in the Tuesday, Aug. 6 primary election. The winner will advance to the Nov. 5 general election to face Mike Warner, the first Republican to run for Douglas County DA in 20 years.

The forum was hosted by Women for Kansas’ Lawrence/Douglas County chapter, with Tai Edwards moderating.

Well more than 100 people were in attendance, filling up the library’s auditorium.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Tai Edwards

Tonda Hill is currently working as a prosecutor in Wyandotte County, though she resides in Lawrence. She’s named after her father, Tony, and that’s how the first syllable of her name is pronounced, rather than TAWN-da.

Hill received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from KU, then went on to KU Law.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Tonda Hill

She said her entire career has been about public service, starting as a teacher at an alternative high school. She worked as a deputy public defender prior to her current position. She’s a member of the League of Women Voters, Justice Matters and the NAACP, and she attends a local church, she said.

Dakota Loomis is a Lawrence defense attorney. He’s also the Baldwin City attorney, prosecuting cases in that municipal court.

He said the DA should be someone people can trust, and someone who has relationships across the community. Victims of crimes and colleagues in law enforcement and social service agencies should be able to trust the DA to keep their word and keep their promises, Loomis said.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Dakota Loomis

He encouraged people to walk around the Douglas County courthouse and ask the court reporters, court security and other folks he works with day in and day out for their opinions of him.

“I think you’ll get the same answer over and over again: Someone who works for their client; someone who protects their client and someone who is fair and honest with their opponents, fair and honest with the court,” he said. “Someone who brings the same dignity and respect to each person they deal with, regardless of situation, regardless of background.”

Incumbent DA Suzanne Valdez said running the DA’s office requires not only managing what’s happening in the courtroom but also working with budgets and allocating resources.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Suzanne Valdez

She said her office has worked on alternatives to incarceration, and that people should be rehabilitated and get back with their families. However, she said violent offenders need to be in prison.

Her office works daily with victims and she and her staff members do everything they can to get justice for them, she said.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out,” Valdez said. “We trust the system to work. It is not a perfect system.”

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Community members pack the library auditorium for the forum.

Prosecutorial discretion

Edwards asked candidates, “What values and priorities will govern your prosecutorial decision-making process as district attorney, and why should voters trust you with this discretionary power?”

Hill said if there is a case that is not supported by evidence, even if it’s controversial, it’s important for her to dismiss the charges.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Tonda Hill (left) speaks during the forum.

“I will use my prosecutorial discretion to make sure that I am being measured in my approach, and pragmatic,” she said. “I believe that it is very important that individuals know that there are natural consequences for their behavior, but that consequence has to be measured in your approach.”

She said she will not tolerate violent offenses and sexual assaults, but she also believes that wraparound services are key, and she wants to avoid penalizing mental illness, addiction and poverty, she said. As a teacher, she saw kids get caught up in the legal system because of truancy, and that makes it hard for them to proceed because they’re encumbered with that burden, Hill said.

Hill said she was prosecuting a Wyandotte County case involving one of Loomis’ drug court clients. Douglas County’s drug court program includes supervision, drug treatment and community service. It takes about 14 months for each participant to complete the program; if they’re successful, their charges are dismissed. Loomis serves as the defense attorney for the defendants in that program.

Hill said she worked with Loomis to get the client’s case and probation moved to Douglas County so the client could take care of her legal obligations while she was in drug treatment.

“I hope that this individual is using that opportunity to better her life and to better Douglas County, and that’s what I want to do as your district attorney,” Hill said.

Loomis said he wants to make sure the DA’s office spends its time on the most important cases and doesn’t waste resources.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Dakota Loomis (center) speaks during the forum.

He previously worked as a prosecutor in Shawnee County, charging domestic violence cases. He said he thinks the hardest part of the job is to tell someone that their case isn’t going to get prosecuted.

“You have to tell them that ‘We believe you. We believe this happened to you. But based upon the evidence I have before me, what I can show the jury, I can’t in good conscience use our resources to prosecute this case,'” Loomis said.

He said his focus is getting the greatest public safety return, and not everyone needs to be prosecuted. Douglas County currently doesn’t prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession, for instance, he said.

Law enforcement can tell you the folks who need to be prosecuted, Loomis said, and resources should be focused on prosecuting the most dangerous crimes committed by folks who commit those crimes again and again.

“If you treat every single case that comes across your desk the same way, that means you’re using resources on cases where alternatives to the criminal justice system would be better suited for that case,” he said.

Loomis said in the case Hill mentioned, the defendant also had cases in five other counties, and he had to work with all of them to get them on board with the drug court program for his client. Today, she’s one of the most successful graduates of the program. He wants the DA’s office to have more stories like that, he said.

Valdez said prosecutorial discretion is coupled with prosecutorial independence, and both are important to her.

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Suzanne Valdez (right) speaks during the forum.

She said she’s proud to speak to people all across the country about what Douglas County is doing to make the criminal justice system better. One of those initiatives that is in the works is a veterans treatment court.

She’s also prosecuting distributors of illicit fentanyl. Her brother died of a fentanyl overdose, and people are dying from it every day, she said.

“Those who are addicted, we want to put in drug court, where Mr. Loomis does a great job as a defense attorney,” she said, turning to her colleague. “You need to be there,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

She said she has taken a stance against criminalization of reproductive rights, and that her office is not prosecuting any laws that go after reproductive rights.

“I prosecute those cases that are violent, I make sure that constitutional rights are protected and that victims’ rights are protected,” she said. “People might not like the outcome, and it makes me sad sometimes that we don’t get the outcomes we need. But you know what, every single day I’m out there fighting for victims, and so is my team. And so those are going to continue to be my priorities.”

A recording of the forum will be uploaded to the Women For Kansas YouTube page, youtube.com/@WomenForKansas, within a few days, Edwards said. Audio is embedded above in this post or available at this link.

Douglas County voters can take care of their voter registration, updates and ballot requests at ksvotes.org. Check your districts at myvoteinfo.voteks.org.

 Deadline to register, or update your registration, to vote on Aug. 6: Tuesday, July 16
 Deadline to request an advance voting mail ballot for the Aug. 6 primary: Tuesday, July 30
Early voting begins: Wednesday, July 17; times and locations to be announced
General election: Tuesday, Nov. 5

More election info: LawrenceKSTimes.com/Election2024

Mackenzie Clark/Lawrence Times Kelly Wall, of Women for Kansas Lawrence/Douglas County
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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