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In top prosecutor race, diversity, public access emerge as key issues

In top prosecutor race, diversity, public access emerge as key issues

Harrison, Bethany and Hutcherson, Carlos

Bethany Harrison (left) and Carlos Hutcherson

While the candidates for Lynchburg chief prosecutor in the upcoming election share similar approaches to making the office effective at putting away criminals, they differ on whether current leadership has done enough on diversity and reaching out to the community.

Republican Bethany Harrison, the current second-in-command in the commonwealth’s attorney office, and Democrat Carlos Hutcherson, a defense lawyer, agree the criminal justice system should be inclusive of all populations in the city. They also say engagement with all groups is an essential role for prosecutors.

Both talked with The News & Advance in a conversation on several subjects recently.

The issue of minority representation among attorneys and judges arises in a place where, according to 2010 census data, the black population is the largest minority at 29.3 percent.

Hutcherson brought up the issue of minorities in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in the context of criticizing how they are represented across the criminal justice system.

“It’s concerning because we are a diverse community. The office doesn’t reflect the community at all,” Hutcherson said. “In Lynchburg, the bench — the judges — don’t reflect the diversity in the community at all. The office of the public defender doesn’t reflect the diversity in the community at all.

“I am the only candidate that could effectively change that dynamic, that hasn’t been changed in several years as far as I’m aware of,” he added.

If elected, Hutcherson said, he would be the first African-American commonwealth’s attorney in Lynchburg and the only to make a run for the office, at least in recent decades, making his candidacy groundbreaking.

“I would instantly change the percentage of diversity in that office,” he said. While the prosecutor’s office has some minorities, there aren’t nearly enough, he argued.

Of the 30 employees in the Lynchburg Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Harrison said a senior assistant and a legal assistant are African-American females, and another legal assistant is of Hispanic descent.

Harrison strongly defended the office’s record in hiring and equal treatment of all races, backgrounds and other demographics, whether victims or defendants. She cited the three minorities working in the office, as well as citywide diversity training. Later Harrison said there are 24 women and six men in the office.

According to Hutcherson in the interview, he represents a wide range of experience in litigation and criminal justice, making him the ideal choice for the office. For example, he said, he has argued before the Workers’ Compensation Commission, a state agency that resolves disputes over compensation between employers and their workers.

“I think I’m a well-rounded attorney. It is essential that not only do we have fairness in the criminal justice system but we support the perception of fairness in the system,” said Hutcherson, who started his own law firm five years ago.

One of the issues, he said, is minority defendants often feel they can’t get a fair shake in a criminal justice system in which they feel under-represented on both sides. This is particularly true in circuit court cases for indigent defendants, he said.

Harrison said the office has put a strong emphasis on diversity and training in those areas.

First and foremost, the role of a commonwealth’s attorney is to be a “minister of justice,” she said. “That means that you are there to be a voice for victims of crime, to represent the citizens of Lynchburg and the commonwealth, but also to represent the interests and to make sure the rights of the accused are protected.

“It takes a commonwealth’s attorney with experience to be able to do this. I’m the only one candidate in this race who has experience as a prosecutor,” said Harrison, the chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney, who has served as a Lynchburg prosecutor about 10 years.

“You have to fairly represent everyone in the community. I take that very seriously. I’ve had victims of varying religious backgrounds, varying socioeconomic backgrounds, races and sexual orientation,” she said.

“And this is a job where you’re not there to place judgments on anyone, but to listen to your victims and serve the purpose of seeking justice,” she added. “They have been wronged; someone has committed a crime against them. And we fight vigorously for victims of crime, no matter their race, religion or creed.”

Making sure prosecutors understand different populations is crucial, and the office has gone through diversity training through Lynchburg’s dialogues on race and racism, sexual orientation and ethnicities, Harrison said. Only someone with those experiences and training can be effective, she argued.

Voters will go to the polls and select the new commonwealth’s attorney Nov. 7.

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