In the final week of campaigning before Tuesday's election, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley drew fire Friday over a deal he made with judges and defense attorneys two years ago to postpone seeking tougher sanctions against some serious sex offenders who had already served their prison sentences.
Political opponents attacked Cooley for seeking two-year hospital commitments for many prisoners declared by courts to be sexually violent predators, even though voters in November 2006 approved legislation that allows prosecutors to seek indefinite hospital terms for such offenders.
Critics said the agreement undermines the will of voters and gives dangerous sex offenders an extra shot at release.
"It's a slap in the face to voters," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Ipsen, who is campaigning to unseat his boss. "If you're a sexual predator, would you rather have one shot at getting out or two?"
The district attorney's office made the deal with the county's judges and public defender's office in October 2006, about a month after the Legislature changed the law but a month before voters approved identical changes in the ballot initiative known as Jessica's Law.
Managers in Cooley's office said they agreed to the deal to accommodate an overburdened court system. If all offenders with pending cases had asked for an immediate hearing before the initiative passed, prosecutors feared that judges might release many to avoid violating their right to a speedy trial.
"We did not want to run the risk," said Richard Doyle, director of specialized prosecutions for the district attorney's office. "We're talking about people who are extremely dangerous."
Doyle described Ipsen's criticism as misleading and "last minute allegations by a weak candidate."
The agreement, he said, applies only to about 140 cases. In those, prosecutors had sought to commit sex offenders before the passage of Jessica's Law, but the courts had yet to hold their hearings.
Doyle said the office would seek indefinite terms when those offenders return to court in two years for their next hearing. Meanwhile, he said, prosecutors have sought indefinite terms in all cases they have filed since Jessica's Law passed.
Still, the county's approach is at odds with the way others have interpreted the ballot initiative.
Under state law, once prosecutors seek to commit a sex offender, a judge must hold a trial to determine whether he or she qualifies as a sexually violent predator. The attorney general's office and two appeals courts have concluded that offenders declared predators at trials held after the ballot initiative passed should receive indefinite terms.
Doyle said his office is concerned that switching course now would violate the rights of offenders who did not previously press for a speedy trial because they believed they would face a two-year term.
LaWanda Hawkins, who sits on the advisory board of the nonprofit Crime Victims United of California, said she was outraged by the district attorney's approach.
"He should be demanding that all of them are prosecuted to the fullest," she said.
But Cooley won support from Robert Kalunian, chief deputy for the L.A. County public defender's office, who described the criticism as a "cheap shot."
"The D.A. did the right thing," he said, "and they ought not to be penalized."