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Most Influential 2018: OC’s controversial justice system gets 2 new leaders in Don Barnes, Todd Spitzer

Change is coming to Orange County’s turbulent criminal justice system.

A full overhaul is expected under District Attorney-elect Todd Spitzer; a few meaningful tweaks under Sheriff-elect Don Barnes.

Spitzer and Barnes are the new faces of Orange County law enforcement, handed the mantle of public safety in the Nov. 6 election. Spitzer won as a reformer at a prosecutor’s office where, in some cases, winning had taken precedence over fairness. Barnes won as the hand-picked successor to retiring Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, the heir apparent to fine tune an organization that has weathered several crises.

RELATED: See the full list of the 100 Most Influential in Orange County for 2018

Spitzer sees himself as a champion of social justice, someone who doesn’t view  incarceration as the only answer to crime. Someone driven by compassion and family roots.

Spitzer remembers, as a 10-year-old, watching his grandfather’s furniture store burn down during a neighborhood riot in East Los Angeles, near the Silver Dollar bar where writer Ruben Salazar was later killed. He remembers trying to understand why?

He says he still was trying to answer that question when he taught at a barrio high school with a high dropout rate in 1984. He learned about civil unrest and disenfranchisement.

“Kids were treated differently because of the color of their skin,” Spitzer said, stressing that his office will consider all aspects of crime, such as mental health and substance abuse,  “We have a real responsibility on all aspects of society to try to help people stay out of the system.”

Spitzer, who has held local, county and state offices, will be sworn in as the new D.A. by former California Supreme Court Justice John A. Arguelles. Arguelles was vice-chair of a Los Angeles Police Department commission formed after the Rodney King beating.

Spitzer said his prosecutors will be tough when they need to be and compassionate when that’s what is needed. In preparation to take the helm in January, Spitzer has met with the ACLU, which has filed a lawsuit against the office. He has reserved a room in his agency for the county Office of Independent Review, a civilian watchdog that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas tried to keep away.

“I’ve inherited a legacy of problems,” Spitz said. For one thing, the federal justice department is in the midst of investigating the office’s misuse of jailhouse informants under  Rackauckas.

However, Spitzer says he feels energized by the challenges and embraced by the office’s employees. Spitzer has named outgoing county supervisor and attorney Shawn Nelson as his right-hand-man and retired Los Angeles County prosecutor Patrick Dixon – who was on a panel that called the office “a ship without a rudder” – as his legal counsel.

Spitzer has said his top administrator will be his current chief-of-staff, Melanie Eustice.

A throat-cancer survivor and garage-sale browser,  Spitzer says he would not use an ax but a scalpel in making personnel changes, and none will be retaliatory in nature.

“I’m shaking an Etch A Sketch, and I don’t care where you were in the race.”

Sheriff elect-Barnes says he doesn’t mind admitting his department’s mistakes – the snitch scandal, the 2016 escape of three jail inmates – he just doesn’t want to keep talking about them long after he believes they’ve been corrected.

Barnes – the current undersheriff – wants to also be judged for the improvements made by the department.

He says he is concentrating on social issues, looking to be more inclusive and meeting with stakeholders, such as the Mexican consulate, ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community.

“I’m in the business of putting ourselves out of business,” Barnes says. The key, as he sees it, is for everyone to move toward the center from the fringes, to “stop yelling at each other from the corners of the room.”

“Everybody is operating on absolutes, and it’s destroying the country,” he said.

One of his largest problems, says Barnes, is that immigrants are too afraid to take advantage of services offered by the sheriff’s department, too afraid to even pick up free children’s car seats and bicycle safety helmets, because they believe they will be turned over to ICE.  Barnes blames demagogues for lumping all immigrants with those who have been convicted of crimes.

“It breaks my heart,” Barnes says. “I can’t protect them if they can’t be co-producers of their own safety.”

No victim will be penalized for reporting a crime, he said.

Barnes made a promise to any undocumented immigrant too afraid to visit their child in an Orange County lockup because they believe they’ll be taken into ICE custody.

“I will pick her up and drive her to her visit,” he said.

Nearly 30 years with the sheriff’s department, Barnes said he always saw himself in a supporting role – until he became Hutchens’ assistant and she brought up the possibility over lunch. Barnes said he thought he had something to give and the ability to focus on the community and not his own wants.

“If in any way (a) decision is about me, then I am not doing it for the right motivation and will shift accordingly,” he said.

Source: Orange County Register

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