At a candidates debate yesterday, April 18, 2018, for the Jefferson County Attorney´s office held at La Casita Center (the first such forum for this office organized by and for the immigrant community), the incumbent Mike O’Connell and challenger Brent Ackerson (current member of Metro Council) vied for the immigrant vote with passion and rhetorical flourishes. They responded to questions formulated by members of the immigrant community and asked by the debate moderator Professor Enid Trucios-Haynes. At one point members of the audience thought incumbent Mike O´Connell was about to physically confront challenger Ackerson when he abruptly got to his feet and took a step in anger toward his opponent, visibly red in the face and not waiting for the interpreter to translate the last statement into Spanish.
What apparently enraged O´Connell was an accusation by Ackerson that the budget prepared by the incumbent Attorney´s office was not transparent enough for Metro Council to address perceived shortfalls in that office in understanding the unjust reality on the ground for immigrants caught up in the judicial system. O´Connell strongly objected to this criticism.
Immigration lawyer Rachel Mendoza-Newton had commented from the audience that immigrants confronted by legal charges often faced the following dilemma: remain in jail because they could not afford the expensive bail while awaiting a trial, or plead guilty to a crime so they could quickly return to their families and jobs. Often, what seems like the expeditious choice, pleading guilty, is done without the realization that they thereby forego due process and are immediately turned over to the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a criminal subject to deportation. This testimony flew in the face of O´Connell´s assertion that even in their role as prosecutors, his office understands and considers the ramifications of guilty pleas for immigrant defendants, a criticism that challenger Ackerson tried to press home.
Another big theme was the Cash Bond program that Louisville, along with Detroit, Michigan had been chosen for, whereby a rotating fund is made available to cover the bond payments for low-income defendants unable to afford the posting of their bonds. O´Connell appeared to take credit for Louisville being selected for this program and asserted this as an important advance for Louisville, to which some audience members audibly concurred. Ackerson nevertheless asserted that the Attorney´s office could and should do more to encourage judges to allow defendants ¨freedom on their own recognizance,¨ without the need for posting bond while awaiting trial, instead of simply relying on an external funding source to partially alleviate this injustice for low-income defendants.
O´Connell presented as one of his achievements in favor of the immigrant community: 50 U visas procured for undocumented persons under his watch. (U visas are provided to proven victims of violence, whether domestic or due to labor trafficking). In addition, O´Connell described his role in defending Jefferson County from attempts by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to intimidate and threaten the city with a loss of funding for the police department due to the ordinance Metro Council voted into law that prohibits Louisville Metro Police from cooperating with ICE in their detention and deportation actions. In addition, O´Connell claimed to be unaware of and promised to take action to address, a problem aired by members of the audience, wherein incarcerated persons are held in jail beyond the time of their sentence in order for ICE to take custody and put them in deportation proceedings. Challenger Ackerson praised such public debates for allowing public officials to learn new things from the public, and agreed that if elected he would be even a stronger advocate for the immigrant community than the incumbent.
The debate seemed to underscored the advantage enjoyed by the incumbent, particularly where he had accomplishments under his belt he could describe to potential voters. It also underscored the need for more public accountability of public officials. How could the immigrant community even understand the intricacies of the US judicial system, let alone voice their problems to officials such as the County Attorney, without attending such a debate and hearing that invitation from the standing Attorney himself?
High praise for debate host Mijente spokesperson Jesús Ibañéz, La Casita Center Director Karina Barillas and U of L Law Professor Enid Trucios-Haynes who moderated this debate. ¡¡La lucha sigue sigue!!