SN&R’s interview with former federal prosecutor Todd Leras
The district-attorney candidate on crowded prisons, rehab and the war on drugs
Todd Leras spent the past five years as one of tens of thousands of attorneys in the Department of Justice. Based out of Sacramento, the recently announced district-attorney candidate has prosecuted cases involving mortgage fraud, drug trafficking, sex crimes and even white-collar embezzlement. SN&R spoke with the candidate to discuss what’s working and what needs to change when it comes to law and order in Sacramento.
The war on drugs has been a big issue lately. Did Attorney General Eric H. Holder’s statement about respecting states’ marijuana laws take you by surprise?
He issued a couple of announcements that surprised. The first was early on: He had made a statement about not wanting to pursue criminal actions against people who were complying with state [medical-marijuana] law. There was an unintended consequence to that. …
And then the second thing was recently when he went to the [American Bar Association], and without any warning, announced that he wanted to essentially loosen up some of the prosecutions of lower-level drug dealers who were facing statutory minimum sentences. Our response, immediately, was, “Wow, we didn’t see that was coming—and what does that mean?”
Basically, America’s drug policy has been to attack the supply side. But the demand hasn’t changed, so you reduce the supply but increase the price. More people get involved in illegal drugs, and it hasn’t been working—and yet we continue to keep doing it. Am I missing something here?
I think that’s a fairly accurate assessment of what the policy has been; it’s been a supply-side policy. We go after it. You can understand why, from a prosecutor’s perspective, that is where you do want to concentrate. You don’t want to pick on the people who are low level and using but create the demand for drugs.
But we’re putting tons of them in prison for low-level drug use.
Well, what you end up doing is they become essentially, because of their drug use, unemployable. Unemployed and unemployable. A lot of them get involved in low-level drugs sales and then get prosecuted for low-level drug sales and end up going to prison for low-level drug sales. That what’s you see.
But then, when the Department of Justice changes the guidelines, there must be some awkward conversation. “You would be OK, but I just happened to be arrested too early.”
Invariably, you have those conversations. I had many of them with defense attorneys, where I would have to say, … “I’ll go with you, and we’ll go talk and we’ll see if this is gonna change anything.”
The U.S. attorney has limited
resources. How did medical-marijuana prosecutions become a priority?
It’s a very interesting issue, because not every drug is the same. And from my view, meth and cocaine are poisons. Particularly with meth, you see what devastation it wreaks. …
When there was a change of policy on low-level marijuana, everyone thought that meant the feds aren’t going after marijuana. People went into it, they were making lots of money—they were essentially selling marijuana as a commodity. Then, the federal government came in and said, “No, it’s not legal. California, you have not legalized recreational use. So, we’re going to come in and crack down on and shut down those avenues for selling marijuana,” and … it creates this black market of people who are growing in the national forest.
Recently, U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner released a press release about Angel Gonzalez, 36, who was going to serve seven years in prison for marijuana cultivation in the Sequoia National Forest. Do you actually think that putting Angel in jail is going to have any impact?
There will be another Angel.
And so, what are we doing? Isn’t this to just keep doing the same thing of working on supply, impacting supply? This clearly is not working.
You’re reading a press release that obviously is talking about someone who’s out in the national forest, growing marijuana on our land, on our public land. That’s something that politically looks good in a press release. You’re right, that’s why it’s made, because that’s our land, we’re supposed to be able to go out and hike and enjoy it without being threatened by someone who is trying to protect their marijuana crop. There’s no political will to say let’s not do that. I understand that completely.
What you’re talking about is also sensible. … That is a major source of frustration for the line prosecutors who do those kinds of cases. You’re right. I think that’s why it’s important, when you have someone who leads an office, that they know what it’s like to be on the line and they know this is what it’s like be a prosecutor. The case that you just showed me, the press release, is a great example of that. There were many of my colleagues who could not stand to doing those cases, those Forest Service cases, for that reason, because they felt that there was going to be another one right down the road.
If you were talking to a marijuana collective and they came to you and said, “We got your guidelines, we’re in compliance with all of these guidelines: Can I be assured that I won’t be prosecuted?”
I’d tell them no. I’d tell them that you’re still likely to get prosecuted for the reason that I told you earlier. I’d say, “Look, California has not adopted a broad change in its law the way that Colorado and Washington have, and so you still risk potentially being prosecuted by state authorities.”
How do you think things will play out?
My guess for the future? I think there is going to be pressure on the various U.S. attorneys throughout the country to comply with what Washington has announced. That people will come into line, and there will be this expectation that if you’re complying with the policy as announced that there will not be prosecutions.
As district attorney, what would be your policy for medical marijuana?
Medical marijuana is the law. … I find the medical-marijuana laws to be quite confusing, and I’m sure that anyone who tries to comply with them does. If you are in compliance with medical-marijuana laws, there will be no prosecution. That’s a judgment that has been made, and there’s no reason to prosecute medical-marijuana users for complying with the law. Now, there are significant gray areas, and I think the DA needs to be an advocate for trying to get clarity.
We’ve had a very conservative district attorney, Jan Scully, who’s been strident in terms of locking people up and not focused on alternatives to incarceration. What is your approach to some of these issues?
That’s the crux of why I’m getting into the race. We are now in a position that what’s been happening for the last 20 years is unsustainable. You can’t do it anymore. You’ve gotta change the policies.
What do you stand for as a DA candidate?
The crystallized message is that we have to increase public safety, recognizing that we have less resources to do it. The way to do that is every member of the district attorney’s office … has to be taught repeatedly—and the lesson has to be reinforced—that we are trying to exercise our judgment to identify … the worst bad actors who we need to protect our community [against] by putting them away.
As for other individuals on the lower levels, we now can’t afford to incarcerate them the way we used to. We’ve got to come with alternatives. … I think that’s the path forward. That’s how we increase public safety.
In Sacramento, the realignment money hasn’t been spent on these rehabilitative policies.
Because we still have the same essential district-attorney policy. … I’m going to take some of that money and try and come up with some type of program and use it as an alternative to incarceration, again, at the lower levels.
Are there other key issues and changes that you think we should make at the district attorney’s office?
I know the U.S. attorney’s office quite well. I know who is over there and who is good and ambitious and would be willing to take on things in the area of white-collar crime. … They have more resources and better ability to prosecute than we do. Once the budget situation improves over there, I expect they will be anxious and hungry for cases.
I think there are the cases here in Sacramento, where you get a person who is embezzling from a business here, which wouldn’t go to the U.S. attorney. My sense is that those cases are complicated; they’re much more difficult. They’re the “good luck on your civil trial, we wish you the best of luck” cases.
They get prosecuted. But they don’t get prosecuted to the same extent, but you have to set priorities. And you’re right. I’m going to tell you that if I’m setting priorities and I’m looking as alarmed as I am by somebody that is embezzling business funds, I don’t consider it the same as someone who is victimizing a child or shooting someone in our community. Those are the people that I think need to be the top priority of the DA’s office. You need to talk about people who are actually victimizing and hurting people and kids. That’d be the first level of priority.
But we also had a DA that prosecuted people for doing needle exchanges. Embezzlement or needle exchanges—help me here …
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s why this race is so important, because you have alternatives to these policies that have been long-standing policies, and I don’t think people really realize the implications.