D.A. candidates explore differences

Sarsfield, Cantu differ on gang treatment, priorities for
office
District Attorney candidate Art Cantu was a no-show at a
political forum in Hollister on Tuesday held for candidates of the
D.A. and District 4 county supervisor races.
Sarsfield, Cantu differ on gang treatment, priorities for office

District Attorney candidate Art Cantu was a no-show at a political forum in Hollister on Tuesday held for candidates of the D.A. and District 4 county supervisor races.

“I wasn’t invited,” said Cantu the next day.

But the Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the event with the Farm Bureau, produced an RSVP with Cantu’s signature verifying the date.

“It wasn’t on my calendar, that’s the honest truth,” Cantu said when questioned later.

Opponent John Sarsfield seemed perfectly happy with the absence, and used the extra time to talk about himself and his plans for the D.A.’s office, should he be elected Nov. 5.

Sarsfield, 39, emphasized his 13 years experience as a prosecutor, from working in the military as a JAG officer to his stint with the U.S. District Attorney’s office, and more recently as a Senior Deputy D.A. in Monterey County. It is there he says he honed his skills, working intensively on a gang task force and prosecuting juvenile, white-collar and environmental crime during the past 10 years. He received his law degree from the University of Santa Clara. He and his wife Wendy have two children and have lived in Hollister since 1992.

Cantu, 42, received his law degree in 1993 from Peninsula University Law School in Mountain View, an institution that no longer exists. In 1994 he lived in San Juan Bautista, then bought a home in Los Banos and moved with his family. He has been a defense attorney practicing from an office in Hollister since getting his degree, and in 2001 he made a bid to the county to get hired as the Public Defender. He lost out to then Deputy D.A. Greg LeForge. Cantu is the former president of the San Benito County Bar Association and is the current vice president of that organization. Cantu divorced in 2000 and last year moved from Los Banos to San Benito County, where he rents a home off Cienega Road.

Last Thursday both Sarsfield and Cantu attended a political forum held in San Juan Bautista, where they expounded on their political differences.

The two lawyers said they are keen on gang and juvenile crime intervention, but by using vastly different methods. Cantu wants to put young gang members into diversion programs to give them a chance at rehabilitation, while Sarsfield would prefer to throw the book at them.

The differences in their judicial ideology became apparent when Sarsfield focused largely on his prosecutorial background as a deputy D.A. in Monterey County, while defense attorney Cantu was enthusiastic about saving the crime-prone but misled youth of the community from continuing on a downward spiral.

“The wrong decision could encourage this kid to come back or harden this kid and before you know it we have an angry young man who’s in the county jail and putting a burden on this community,” said Cantu.

Countered Sarsfield: “I’m concerned with the growing gang violence in this county. You can’t help noticing all the tagging that’s going on, the increase in homicides. I don’t think that enough emphasis has been placed on bringing gang cases with enhancements that increase the penalties and sentencing options for the gang cases. That’s something I would like to see worked and enforced more vigorously.”

That’s not the only issue on which they don’t agree.

Cantu said he wants the D.A.’s office to hire a new juvenile crimes expert who will work exclusively on those cases rather than being loaded with extra adult felony cases as well.

“The county’s not fair to the community,” said Cantu. “It’s not fair to the juveniles that we leave it the way it is. How can the county afford this? We can’t afford not to.”

Sarsfield focused on his plan to have an expert tackle a consumer protection program to rid the county of “rip-offs and con artists who would sell you goods that are defective and then leave town,” he said to the audience. “Or financial advisors who come in, unlicensed, unregulated, not part of the local business community, who take your money in investment schemes and leave. People who sell expired medical devices or pharmaceuticals.”

“Most counties in California have vigorous consumer protection programs,” he went on. “Unfortunately, this county does not. Every contiguous county in this area has an active consumer protection program, and I think we deserve to have just as much protection in San Benito County as they do in Gilroy or Salinas or San Jose.”

When San Juan resident Jim Dulan, sitting in the audience, asked Cantu about his plans to curb domestic violence, Cantu let the current system answer for him.

“Domestic violence is unique to the state of California,” said Cantu. “A first time offender, if the victim and the victim’s family agree, is given a chance to enter into a very aggressive domestic violence treatment program. It has a great success. We need to continue and improve it. It would give the person a chance to re-address the way he treats his partner.”

In contrast to Cantu’s more liberal approach to juvenile crime, Sarsfield doesn’t want to give kids playing hooky a break.

“It’s a fact that when children are in school, they are less likely to be injured and they also get an education,” said Sarsfield. “But if you don’t have a mechanism to make sure they are in school – and I’m not saying just public schools, don’t misunderstand me, just a school — private, public or whatever…”

He added that schools are doing the best job they can to “coerce, cajole and entice truant students back into school.”

“But without the law backing them up you have the carrot and stick approach,” Sarsfield said. “I would like to see the DA’s office very involved in that truancy mediation program. It costs little or nothing. I think we’d all benefit a great deal when our children go back to school.”

Sarsfield wasn’t all hard-nosed about meting out tough justice. He talked briefly about the success of Proposition 36, which instead of mandating prison sentences offers treatment programs to drug offenders.

“I was opposed to this new law when it came in,” said Sarsfield. “I didn’t think it would work. But it does seem to be working. I’m happy to say I was pleasantly proved wrong.”

Sarsfield reiterated his stand on drug use and possession at his one-man show during Tuesday’s forum, when moderator Paul Hain asked him if he believed criminals should be warehoused in prisons.

“If they are simply in for drug possession, I have no problem with using rehabilitation programs instead,” said Sarsfield.

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