Column: Focus on criminal justice

Published Mar 9, 2014 at 12:01AM

Thursday morning I carved out time to watch the YouTube replay of the debate last week between Patrick Flaherty and John Hummel.

Organized by the Bend Chamber of Commerce, the evening brought Deschutes District Attorney Flaherty face to face with his challenger, former Bend city councilor Hummel.

A good case can be made that it is the marquee race in the upcoming May election.

And it should be, because what is at issue is the application of justice in our home county.

A lot was said at the debate, but speaking personally, not enough to answer the key question: Who would do the better job of wisely prosecuting crime in our area?

That, after all, is the job, and neither candidate convinced me.

Granted, this election season is young.

But what should we seek in a district attorney, and what questions should we ask to sort out the best choice?

District attorneys are neither legislators nor judges.

Nor are they robots.

Within the confines of the law, they exercise a brand of discretion called prosecutorial.

Discretion requires judgment, a balancing of varied factors against an end that serves the law, the victims, the community and even the accused.

What kind of person can do that? What are the qualities?

There are many, but in my book honesty ranks at the top.

Given the allowable limits of campaign hyperbole, it’s more difficult to judge than you would imagine.

But is there anything in the candidates’ pasts or recent statements that is not honest, or so warps the facts that reality is unrecognizable?

Temperament is another key ingredient.

Someone who can think calmly, coolly and without reflexive judgments under the enormous demands of the office is desirable.

A smart district attorney will serve us best. Not just IQ points, though they are not to be dismissed, but an experience-based knowledge of the law is something we should seek.

We should also think about which candidate would be most effective.

Who can lead the members of the prosecutor’s office, which operates on our dime, into the most efficient and just application of the law?

Flaherty and Hummel are both good, imperfect men, similar in their admirable commitment to public service.

The good news is that they both have extensive public records.

Flaherty has been the district attorney for four years and a prosecutor for many before that. Granted, Hummel has never been a prosecutor, but he has a long record as a Bend city councilor, local attorney and public interest advocate.

At last week’s debate, Flaherty said that he wanted to make changes in the policies of his predecessor. And he said that commitment was the cause of the staff distress that dominated the news of the early days of his administration.

What were those policy changes? Did they improve the quality of justice in the county?

Hummel suggested that he would change the atmosphere, if not the policies, of the district attorney’s office without changing any of the staff. Is that realistic?

Notwithstanding his record as a Bend councilor, what policies would he change, or what prosecutorial decisions does he specifically disagree with in the key criminal cases of the last four years?

Let’s hope that over the next 2½ months they can avoid personal attacks, focus on the critical criminal justice issues that face our community and offer their reasoned approaches to solutions.

If that happens, the best man will emerge.

And we’ll have a winner we deserve.

— John Costa is editor-in-chief

of The Bulletin.