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Primary election 2022: Jefferson County Attorney

Democrat Mike O’Connell, 72, is seeking election to a fourth full term. 

Former Mayor Jerry Abramson appointed him to the position in 2008. O’Connell secured his first four-year term in 2010 and all subsequent elections. He previously served as a judge in both the Jefferson County District and Circuit Courts. 

Democrats Karl Price and David Holton are running against him in the May 17 primary election.

Price, 60, is a private trial attorney. He was previously a prosecutor with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office for nearly 25 years. Price was fired in 2015 following conduct violations, including racist comments he made against Asian-American defendants.

Holton was a Jefferson County District Court judge for nearly 10 years. Former Gov. Steve Beshear appointed him to the position in 2008. Holton was reelected in unopposed elections before retiring in 2017. Prior to that, he worked as both a prosecutor with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office and as a lawyer in private practice.

The Jefferson County Attorney’s office represents Louisville Metro Government and the Metro Council in legal matters. It’s responsible for prosecuting misdemeanors in Jefferson County District Court, like some DUIs, and overseeing child support cases.

WFPL News sent the following questionnaire to all candidates, but only O’Connell and Price responded. Their answers were edited for length and clarity. 

How do you define justice? What will you do in the pursuit of that idea?

O’Connell: The path to justice can only begin when everyone is treated equally and fairly before the law. I have pushed for change and for fair and equitable treatment for all throughout my time as your Jefferson County Attorney. 

In 2019, I reviewed data that showed Black citizens in Louisville were at least four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. This disparate treatment, coupled with the fact that Black citizens use marijuana at the same rate as whites, led me to no longer prosecute possession of marijuana cases involving one ounce or less. To truly achieve justice, we must be willing to change systems as I have done and will continue to do in additional areas like police reform and pushing to end cash bail in Kentucky.

Price: Justice is fairness. Follow the law that prosecutors must follow. Prosecutors are here to "seek justice," not a particular result if it is inconsistent with justice.

What will you do to address jail overcrowding, and what is your policy on bond requests?

O’Connell: I strongly believe Kentucky needs to eliminate cash bail. The determining factor on whether you stay in jail shouldn’t be if you have access to money or if you don’t, it should be if you’re a danger. That’s common sense, but the law in Kentucky is that bond must be set in all but capital murder cases. Cash bail is illogical and unfair, and I’m working to end it.

My office has taken clear steps to address the size of Louisville’s jail population. In recent years, my office has moved to dismiss aging bench warrants for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. We also review weekly any bonds of $5,000 or less to consider options for reduction or release, and we continue to encourage other counties to either come pick up their inmates, or for judges in those counties to review and potentially lower bonds. 

Price: I would consider all forms of alternative detention, especially in cases not involving violence. Expand and improve home incarceration and bring back halfway houses (we had them 20 years ago). We can also, for nonviolent and non-threatening defendants, use in-patient treatment facilities as an alternative for detention pending hearings, for example.

The bond system we have is not the best, but it is the only one we have now. My office would only advocate "reasonable" bonds, determined on a case-by-case basis. A "reasonable" bond for a dangerous person is different, for example, than a thief who poses more of an economic threat to certain business establishments. The bond will always depend on the circumstances.  A bond request for a dangerous person will always be much higher. There is no absolute bond for all cases.

What changes would you make to make the Jefferson County Attorney's office function better?

O’Connell: The caliber of service to our community depends on our ability to retain and recruit a strong staff, and Frankfort needs to do more to help. Prosecutor salaries in Kentucky are ranked 46th in the nation. I have pushed for, and we are just now seeing movement toward, the first meaningful increases in state worker salaries in years, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome high turnover. That’s why I was so adamant and proud to secure funding last year so that now all employees in my office now have paid family leave. I am also exploring additional employee training across departments to make us more versatile when staff changes occur. 

Price: COVID has shown us the value of non-physical, in-person-contact. It has also shown us how we do that through automation. It is my intent to create a mechanism where defendants can pay restitution through an online system. Petitions for emergency protective orders should also be available to be done online, as that would eliminate the extra stress and exposure on the victim of coming down to file. I would create a system operated by the Jefferson County Attorney's office and not the courts that would allow for the efficient collection of evidence and statements of police officers and witnesses.

I would work to make it easier for citizenry to understand who the County Attorney’s office is and what we do. I would also allow criminal prosecutors wide discretion in handling their assigned cases. And I aim to improve the relationship between the defense bar, judiciary, clerk's office and the Jefferson County Attorney's Office, which is currently at an all time low.

How do you view the County Attorney's role in defending troubled city agencies like the Louisville Metro Police Department and Louisville Metro Department of Corrections?

O’Connell: The County Attorney’s role is defined and mandated by various statutes. Even with these legal obligations, I have not been shy about the need for police reform to confront bias and improper conduct that often especially harms Black and brown communities. We are working closely with the U.S. Department of Justice on its investigation into Louisville. And my office has advised Metro Council and others on how to set up the Civilian Review and Accountability Board and the new Office of Inspector General that have the potential to build community trust. Police and corrections officers have incredibly difficult jobs and I respect that and the work they do. But we, as a community, grant them great powers regarding the liberty of our fellow citizens, so I’m committed to doing my part to see that we have the equitable and just law enforcement our community deserves.

Price: There must be a true balance. It is difficult at times. The view I have is that the county attorney's role must be fairness across the board. Officers should not be subject to frivolous lawsuits, but on the other hand, officers must have greater accountability when there is clear misconduct.

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