SILVER CITY — Two long-time prosecutors from the Sixth Judicial District's Silver City office are vying for the district attorney's seat.
George Zsoka, a Republican, and Francesca Estevez, a Democrat, have each been prosecuting crime in the district for more than a decade and half. Zsoka has been with the office for 15 years and is responsible for prosecuting most violent crimes, such as gang-related crimes, and crimes involving firearms. Estevez has been with the office for 17 years and started out as the domestic violence prosecutor, and continues to prosecute those cases, along with child abuse and child sexual abuse.
Both say making the community safer is their goal, and each has different approaches as to how they would address that.
"Most people know very little about what the District Attorney's Office does and who even works there," Zsoka said. "It's something I get all the time, both as a prosecutor and as a candidate. People are simply not informed on the legal system and the District Attorney's Office. I think it's important to change that."
Zsoka said through a series of community meetings, he hopes to educate the public on what the office does, what they can do, and how they serve the greater community.
For instance, Zsoka said, many people he talks to are appalled at the leniency of New Mexico's laws, such as a six-year sentence for manslaughter, or 15 years for second-degree murder. New Mexico, he said, has some of the most lenient laws in the country.
"As a prosecutor, I don't have the power to change the laws," he said.
But by educating the community as to what the state's laws are, and the sentences, he said community members can make informed decisions and advocate for stronger criminal laws.
"They, as members of the community, can reach out to their elected officials," he said.
Education and information, he said is best way the office can serve the interests of crime victims in particular and the community as a whole.
Estevez also said community education is necessary.
"There has to be a community conversation," she said. "The DA's Office can't resolve all problems."
Estevez said she would do community outreach through newspaper articles, radio programs, and community forums to explain to the public why things happen they way they do within the legal system. One issue she said she would touch upon would be to explain the use of plea agreements in the courts.
"Plea agreements are a tool for prosecutors," she said. "It is a way to assure accountability and justice without chancing a jury trial where you have limitations on what evidence you can introduce, and when victims and witnesses disappear."
Zsoka said he agrees plea agreements are necessary and said he would take a closer look at plea agreements that are being made and put more emphasis on prosecuting the most serious violent crimes.
Both said, if elected, they would work with law enforcement agencies to improve officer training to enhance their investigative skills, and encourage them to continue with community visibility.
Estevez touched on the issue of drugs and substance abuse in the community.
"One of our most pervasive problems in the community is the epidemic of meth," she said. "Most domestic violence cases, child sexual abuse, adult rape and physical child abuse all have a component of substance abuse. Almost 90 percent of the cases have that component. It's a lifestyle and it's wreaking havoc."
She said without a long-term in-patient program for substance abuse in the community, those who need that treatment often aren't getting it.
"This has to be something that the community and the state funds," she said.
She said part of offender accountability is not only vigorously prosecuting offenders and holding them accountable for their crime by a conviction and appropriate sentence, but also by giving them tools so that when the reintegrate into the community, they will be less likely to reoffend.
"The criminal justice system has to address programs for offenders — including mental health, substance abuse programs and life skills," she said. "They really need to have a mandatory educational component to their sentence."
She said helping offenders get their GED while in jail, or learn a trade if the person doesn't want to pursue higher education, will help them not reoffend by giving them skills to fall back on.
Estevez said she has an open door policy.
"If people come to see without an appointment, I try never to turn them away because if they have made the effort to come to the courthouse, I try to make time to meet with them."
"For people who may not know, the district attorney is the chief law enforcement officer for the district and has the principle responsibility for the safety of our communities and preserving the rights of victims," Zsoka said. "This is something I have devoted 23 years of my life to as a prosecutor. I have never considered practicing any other kind of law because to me, seeking justice and the protection of our communities is a passion."
Zsoka said even though this is a partisan race, the district attorney is a non-partisan office.
"There is no Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative way of fighting crime," he said. "It's not about right or left, it's about right and wrong. I call my party the "Z" party, and if the readers agree it's about right and wrong and that politics has no place in prosecution, I invite them to join the "Z" party."
Christine Steele can be reached at (575) 538-5893 ext. 5802.