District attorney candidates debate prison realignment, rehabilitation

mfountain@thetribunenews.comApril 16, 2014 

Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello, left, and Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow are running for the county district attorney job.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

State prison realignment — the 2011 law to send low-level convicts to county jails to ease prison overcrowding — is the biggest challenge facing the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in the next four years, said the two candidates looking to succeed outgoing District Attorney Gerry Shea.

But how to deal with the law’s consequences is where Assistant District Attorney Tim Covello and Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow part ways.

In a debate before the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Inn on Wednesday, both candidates expressed concern that realignment has filled the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

Covello — who claimed to have trained the office’s prosecutors on realignment — said prosecutors need to avoid plea bargains with serious offenders so they serve their time in state prisons and not further burden the jail. He added that re-entry and tattoo-removal programs, some of which are now made possible with state funding, must also be embraced, though that is generally outside of the office’s purview.

Collaborating and discussing new ideas with community leaders and organizations is a must, said Dow, who floated one possible idea of employing empty barracks at Camp San Luis Obispo to house low-risk inmates for a possible work program, so that inmates can remain employed and work by day and serve sentences at night so they can provide for their families.

One of the greater differences between the candidates was on the topic of prisons and rehabilitation. Dow said that the department may be called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but spending time in prison does not rehabilitate people. Covello said the prison realignment was an “opportunity” for the local jurisdictions to try to rehab those serving their time in County Jail.

Asked later to address negative feedback they’ve received during the race, both Dow and Covello faced talking points against them head-on.

“What I’m hearing is that because I have the support of my colleagues I wouldn’t be able to (manage them). That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Dow said, adding that he had the experience during his military service of being promoted above colleagues and successfully leading them.

Covello admitted he’s heard “whispers” around the office that he’s unapproachable. He said that upon reflection, he realized he had just been busy. Over the last few years he’s led the development of a new paperless case-management system and a new electronic search warrant system as well as successfully prosecuted the Dystiny Myers kidnapping and murder case, he said.

“I’m not unapproachable, but over the last few years I can see how I’ve been inaccessible,” he said.

The forum was far more subdued than the last time the pair sat down to a debate. On March 26, Covello and Dow exchanged jabs over campaign contributions and exactly who was on board with the Veterans’ Court and when.

In response to a question from the audience, both candidates were asked, if they were not running in the current race, why they would support the other candidate.

“I respect his ambition and his desire to lead,” Covello said of Dow. “And he makes a killer espresso.”

“Tim’s a fantastic trial lawyer,” Dow said. “I would look at his experience and the fact that I know he really cares about his community.”

The candidates will meet again Wednesday, April 23, for a forum sponsored by The Tribune and moderated by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County. The forum will be at 7 p.m. in the Community Room of the San Luis Obispo Library.

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