Archive for Thursday, July 29, 2004

Branson, Miller offer changes in DA’s office

July 29, 2004

Two Democratic opponents with different backgrounds are hoping to give Douglas County District Attorney Christine Kenney a run for her money this November. Charles Branson and Martin Miller face off in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Miller, a veteran of the district attorney's office with 23 years of legal practice under his belt, said he was the candidate with the experience for the job.
"I know the ins and outs," he said.
Branson, who established his legal practice in Lawrence in 1996, said what he lacked in experience he made up for in a vision for the district attorney's office.
"I'm the candidate putting out ideas," he said.
One of those is installing a consumer protection division at the Douglas County District Attorney's office rather than forwarding such cases to the state attorney general. Doing so, Branson said, would make the process easier and more accessible for Douglas County residents.
"I think it's important to resolve things locally," Branson said.
As Eudora's city prosecutor for more than two years, Branson has made changes, including contracting for space with the Douglas County Jail and bringing more cases back to Eudora, which previously had overseen mostly traffic court. Now, Branson said, the local court saw more cases like battery, criminal damage to property and more serious driving offenses.
"People get their day in court locally," he said. "We've had positive response in that people feel like we're serving the community more than we have before because we offer a wider range of service."
Branson said he hoped to make the courts more accessible at the county level, too, by starting a victim/witness awareness program that would allow them to come in a courtroom before a trial to learn the basics of the process and ask questions.
"If they're a victim or a witness, they're just that -- so they're already starting out (their courtroom experience) in a bad way," Branson said.
His primary opponent, Martin Miller, said one of his goals as district attorney would be to make the court process more open to the public and explain why trials went the way they did. One particular area of misunderstanding, Miller said, was plea bargaining. Miller said the process was a necessary part of running an efficient district attorney's office.
"I've met a lot of people who don't like plea bargaining, but when you tell them what it does...," he said. "Plea bargaining has a bad connotation."
Miller also said the district attorney's office should be conscientious of diversity, especially in reaching out to Douglas County's Hispanic community by having attorney's -- himself included -- learn Spanish.
"The prosecutors, a lot of times, have witnesses and victims who speak Spanish as a first language," he said. "It's good to have a prosecutor or two who speaks Spanish."
Re-evaluating the way the district attorney's office handles juvenile cases would be another of Miller's goals.
Miller said he wasn't one to be soft on crime, but the system could be overzealous in throwing the book at juveniles, turning a young person's mistake into something that would haunt him or her later in life as they tried to find a job or otherwise move on.
And that seemed more common, Miller said, as schools more and more turned over discipline problems to school resource officers.
"I think discretion needs to be exercised and not come down hard on all of them just as a matter of policy," Miller said.
The polls in the Democratic primary race between Branson and Miller will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. For more information, see Page 1A.

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