Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Differing on how to fight crime

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

Despite their many differences, the two write-in candidates for Hamilton County prosecutor agree on a few things.

Democrat Fanon Rucker and Republican Joe Deters say the public deserves better work than it's getting from the prosecutor's office. Both say the office has image, management and morale problems brought on by two months of scandal under current prosecutor Mike Allen.

Both are convinced new leadership can quickly turn the office around.

But that's where the agreement ends.

The candidates vying to replace Allen hail from different political backgrounds and have different visions of how the prosecutor should do his job, from his hiring practices to how he handles death penalty cases.

Voters can hear the candidates discuss those visions together for the first time when Rucker and Deters meet at 7 tonight for a debate at Xavier University's Cintas Center.

With only three weeks remaining before the Nov. 2 election, the forum is likely to be one of the few opportunities voters get to see the candidates side by side. Both are running as write-in candidates because they jumped into the race after Allen announced he wouldn't run again in the wake of a sex scandal.

"There's not a lot of time for the candidates to campaign," said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier political science professor who helped organize the event. "So this is an opportunity for them to be seen."

Deters is a political veteran who rose through the GOP ranks in Hamilton County before resigning as prosecutor to become Ohio treasurer in 1999.

Deters has prosecuted criminals and he's been investigated himself as part of a campaign-finance scandal that resulted in misdemeanor convictions of two associates in the treasurer's office.

Rucker is a political neophyte who worked as a city prosecutor but never in the county office, which handles the most serious cases. He's done civil rights work in private practice and is the first African-American to run for county prosecutor.

Their positions on several key issues:

• Violent Crime: From a politician's standpoint, one of the best things about running for prosecutor is the near universal support for the job's primary mission - fighting crime. But prosecutors often differ on how best to carry out that mission.

Deters said cracking down on street-level violence is essential after six consecutive years of increasing homicide in Cincinnati. He said he would limit plea deals and seek maximum sentences for anyone charged with using a gun to commit a crime.

"The level of violent crime is intolerable," Deters said. "All the good things happening in Cincinnati is all for naught if people don't feel safe."

Rucker also sees violence as a growing problem but says too much emphasis is being placed on small-time criminals and not enough on gang leaders and drug suppliers most responsible for spreading crime.

He said the approach is partly to blame for a perception among some minorities that county law enforcement targets street-level crimes committed by African-Americans while ignoring or going easier on white offenders.

"You've got to go after the people supplying the drugs," said Rucker, who vowed to work more closely with federal and state authorities. "It will help with the violence and it will help in the community."

• The death penalty: Hamilton County has sent more killers to death row than any other Ohio county, accounting for 43 of the 205 inmates there.

But a change in state law seven years ago created a "life without parole" sentence that has encouraged some prosecutors, including Allen, to pursue plea deals in cases that previously resulted in death sentences.

Deters said pleas in such cases are usually a mistake. He said prosecutors should seek the death penalty when the law allows it and, barring new evidence, they should not bargain for a lesser sentence.

"If you ask for the ultimate punishment," Deters said, "you shouldn't be using it as a bargaining chip."

Rucker said he would pursue a death sentence when appropriate - especially when the victims are children - but believes prosecutors should be more selective in seeking it.

Like Deters, he said he would be hesitant to accept pleas in capital cases.

"When you huff and puff and file an indictment (for the death penalty), and then you don't pursue it, you reduce the effectiveness of it," Rucker said.

• Race and politics: Rucker believes the sex scandal involving Allen and a female assistant prosecutor in his office is a symptom of a larger problem. He said decades of GOP dominance have made the office too political and too easily corrupted.

Rucker said he would put in writing office policies barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race or political orientation. And he said he would more aggressively recruit minorities.

Of the 122 lawyers in the office, four are African-American.

"The numbers are abysmal," Rucker said.

When he was prosecutor for seven years in the 1990s, Deters said, he stepped up minority recruitment. But he said competition for black lawyers is intense.

The Bar Association estimates that fewer than 5 percent of lawyers in Cincinnati are African-American. Deters said law firms typically pay better and many lawyers, African-American and white, simply aren't interested in being prosecutors.

"We actively recruited African-Americans into that office," Deters said. "Sometimes it's pretty tough."

• Management style: Rucker and Deters agree Allen's style has unnecessarily rankled fellow county office holders, especially county commissioners. The result, they say, is the hiring of expensive outside lawyers to represent the county in civil cases that should be handled by the prosecutor's office.

Deters said his experience in county government makes him the best choice to end that practice.

But Rucker said Deters' campaign finance troubles in Columbus suggest his experience may be a liability.

Although Deters was not charged with wrongdoing, two of his associates were convicted of misdemeanor charges.

One was accused of giving preferential treatment to certain brokers who contributed to Deters' campaign, and another was accused of soliciting a $50,000 donation for the county GOP when the money was really intended for Deters' campaign.

"How can you be a good manager and not know what your own people are doing?" Rucker said.

Deters said he did nothing wrong and the investigation was politically motivated. He said the experience, which included testifying before a grand jury, gave him a renewed appreciation for the power of prosecutors.

"What I've gone through," he said, "is going to make me a better prosecutor."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com

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