OC DA election contest has already become personal

Mar. 22, 2021 | Updated 19 hours ago

Orange County DA Todd Spitzer compared challenger Peter Hardin to Los Angeles County DA George Gascon, but Hardin said he disagrees with the LA DA on some policies.

Positioning himself as a criminal justice reformer aiming to eliminate the death penalty, end cash bail and rethink how sentence enhancements are charged, a former federal prosecutor who briefly served in the Orange County district attorney’s office has launched a campaign to unseat first-term incumbent DA Todd Spitzer next year. 

And the contest has already become personal. 

As Spitzer watched from the audience while Peter Hardin announced his candidacy at a news conference last week, Hardin said he is concerned that a showman and not a leader is in charge of the county’s justice system. 

The challenger described Spitzer as having “left the district attorney’s office stranded rudderless in a sea of scandals,” alluding to allegations of sexual harassment and a lawsuit stating the DA’s office has coerced misdemeanor defendants into giving DNA samples in exchange for lighter sentences without consulting defense counsel. 

“I have listened to and heard from the community, and they are desperate for change,” Hardin said in a Friday interview. “They want real servant leadership, and that’s what I bring to the table.”

In a rebuttal, Spitzer said Hardin’s comments amount to a “desperate attempt to make this race about anything other than actual policies that affect public safety and the radical, pro-criminal agenda he is adamant about bringing to Orange County.” 

The DA compared Hardin to Los Angeles County DA George Gascón, whose policies, some of which were enjoined by a superior court judge, have garnered national attention since he took office in December. 

“There is no substantive difference between Hardin’s platform and the disastrous policy changes being implemented in Los Angeles by George Gascón,” Spitzer said, noting Hardin’s campaign advisor, Max Szabo, holds the same position for Gascón. “The two even mirror the same talking points to soft pedal policies that prioritize criminals over victims. As the old saying goes, if Hardin walks like Gascón, supports the same policies as Gascón, and talks like Gascón — he’s probably a wannabe Gascón.” 

Although there are similarities in their platforms, Hardin rejected the comparison and asserted that some of his proposed policies don’t go as far as Gascón’s. Unlike the LA DA, Hardin said he wouldn’t take sentence enhancements entirely off the table, noting he thinks “that’s what got us into trouble in the first place.” 

“I don’t espouse all the ideas that some of the other so-called progressive criminal justice reformers around the country are doing,” Hardin said. “I think that each of us have our own communities to represent, and each of those communities has their own issues. Our county is Orange County. We are not LA. We are not Philadelphia. We are not San Francisco.” 

“I want to empower my prosecutors with discretion to use the good judgment for which they were hired to treat each case individually, work with the public defense bar and the courts to determine what’s in the best interest of justice and what’s in the best interest of public safety,” he said.

 Hardin came to Orange County in 2011 after being stationed at Camp Pendleton serving in combat in Afghanistan as a Marine captain with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. He said he also led the largest prosecution office in the Marine Corps as a judge advocate. 

Hardin’s first civilian job was in the Orange County DA’s office, where he spent a year as a deputy district attorney. He later served two years as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California before opening a private defense practice. He now runs Hardin Law Group in Irvine. 

As a prosecutor who worked at every level of the criminal justice system, Hardin said he has concerns about how justice is administered in the United States. Traditional prosecutors, he said, have created what he calls a revolving door system of criminal justice that perpetuates a cycle of crime and homelessness without giving people the tools they need to reintegrate into society. It’s one of the main reasons he said he wants to become the DA.

“I had a front-row seat … and it became evident to me pretty quickly that we were inflicting ever increasing levels of punishment time and again, somehow expecting a different result,” he said. “And I quickly developed a desire to change that system.” 

Hardin said he wants to bring the criminal justice system into the 21st century, a statement often made by self-described progressives like Gascón. Asked what he means by that, Hardin said, “Our technology and so many of our institutions have evolved, and yet our criminal justice system lags far behind.” 

“Understand that as a society, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, and we house 25% of the world’s prison population,” Hardin said. “That’s a gross disparity, and there can’t be that much more crime in the United States. We’re obviously doing something wrong, and the vast majority of our incarcerated population are people of color and people from underserved communities.” 

He said he opposes the death penalty and favors life without parole because executions are unlikely to be fulfilled in California, even absent a moratorium, noting 13 people have been executed since 1978. He also said the cost of imposing capital punishment is a waste of taxpayer dollars, citing studies that show it has no deterrent effect and does not contribute to public safety. And he said while the death penalty was designed to bring victims some measure of finality so they can move forward, he said the appeals process is counterproductive and forces victims to relive their trauma over and over again. 

“Honest prosecutors have to be smart on crime and lead with integrity,” he said. “And honest prosecutors should acknowledge that our state’s death penalty is beyond repair.” 

Hardin said he believes there are cases where sentence enhancements should be imposed, such as hate crimes. And while he said he opposes cash bail because it allows wealthy defendants to buy their freedom while less affluent defendants sit in jail awaiting trial, he said he hasn’t concluded what model should replace it. 

Despite their differences, there are areas of criminal policy where Spitzer and Hardin agree. Both want to move away from charging juveniles as adults. They have both said there are racial disparities in how justice is administered. And they have acknowledged a mass incarceration problem exists in the United States.

 But Spitzer was quick to distinguish between their views. 

“You will likely hear both of us talk about the need for reform in the criminal justice system, but we actually mean two very different things,” Spitzer said. “As district attorney, I have been fighting for common sense reforms to make our criminal justice system more fair, transparent, and accountable, while at the same time keeping violent offenders off the streets and defending public safety.” 

“By contrast, when Peter Hardin says ‘reform’, it is simply a nice way to soft pedal pro-criminal policies that prioritize criminals instead of victims, reduce sentences for killers and violent offenders, and eventually lead to skyrocketing crime rates,” Spitzer said. “This is not reform. It’s going backward and unfortunately has the worst impact on our most vulnerable communities.”

It’s unclear how large Hardin’s war chest is, but he described his challenge as grassroots and said he has not taken money from billionaire George Soros or Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, both of whom have funded progressive prosecutor campaigns, including Gascón’s, throughout the country in recent years.

Hardin said what is at stake in this election is restoring trust and faith in the criminal justice system that he says Spitzer has eroded. As for Spitzer, the election poses a simple question, he said, “whether or not we are going to let a radical, pro-criminal candidate turn Orange County into Los Angeles or San Francisco.”