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Political News

Candidates Join The Race To Replace Longtime Polk County Attorney John Sarcone

courtroom via Douglas Palmer via flickr cc.jpg
Douglas Palmer
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Longtime Polk County Attorney John Sarcone has announced he's retiring. Sarcone faced intense criticism for the prosecution of a Des Moines Register reporter. An assistant county attorney and a defense attorney have joined the race to replace him.

The retirement of longtime Polk County Attorney John Sarcone has already prompted two candidates to jump into the race to succeed him. Since being elected the county’s top prosecutor three decades ago, Sarcone has never faced an opponent. Now an assistant county attorney and a defense attorney are among those vying to replace him.

First elected to the office in 1991, Sarcone will not be running for re-election, a development first reported by KCCI. Sarcone says he intends to spend more time with his 10 grandchildren.

Sarcone faced intense criticism for his prosecution of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri, who was acquitted after being arrested while covering a protest for the newspaper. Her arrest and prosecution drew outrage from free speech and civil society advocates around the world. Sarcone’s prosecution of racial justice protestors active in last summer’s marches has also drawn criticism.

Assistant county attorney distances herself from Sarcone

Assistant Polk County Attorney Laura Roan, a Democrat, officially jumped into the race for the office Thursday. While she comes from within Sarcone’s office, a position she says she’s held for roughly four months, Roan made clear her candidacy will be her own.

“I’m standing here now, not John Sarcone. I’m not his substitute and I’m certainly not gonna be his proxy,” Roan said. “I’m a female with my own career and my own goals for the office.”

A career prosecutor, Roan has also worked as an assistant Iowa attorney general and an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. She touts a record of prosecuting “high profile crimes in nearly every county across the state”.

"I’m standing here now, not John Sarcone. I’m not his substitute and I’m certainly not gonna be his proxy. I’m a female with my own career and my own goals for the office.”
-Laura Roan, candidate for Polk County Attorney

Roan declined to say whether she would have prosecuted Sahouri, saying that although she’s familiar with the case she couldn’t make the call without having access to all the evidence.

“I can't tell you what I would do because knowing what I know isn't the case file,” Roan said. “If I'm not in charge of the prosecution and I haven't interviewed the witnesses and I don't know all the facts and the applicable law, then I'm not going to assess whether that was a good case or a bad case.”

Roan says she wants to “modernize” the office and is open to some of the approaches implemented by a wave of reform-minded prosecutors across the country, including reevaluating how the office approaches the prosecution of low level marijuana offenses.

“Let's have the conversations with the governor's office on Drug Control Policy. Let's have the conversations with the local substance abuse providers and pretrial release and the police department,” Roan said, “because we don't want to focus our resources on [low level marijuana offenses].”

Roan is advocating for greater transparency in the office, including using data and analytics to assess charging decisions and outcomes. She said she would make the prosecution of high level violent and sexual crimes a top priority.

“My career has been laser, laser-beamed on those most violent offenses. And that's where the bulk of our resources need to go,” Roan said. “And then not just because it's about money. As we know, the national conversation is we need to make sure that communities of color are part of the solution.”

“My career has been laser, laser-beamed on those most violent offenses. And that's where the bulk of our resources need to go [...] As we know, the national conversation is we need to make sure that communities of color are part of the solution."
-Laura Roan, candidate for Polk County Attorney

Defense attorney and would-be prosecutor pledges to not prosecute low level marijuana offenses

Defense attorney and former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kimberly Graham also announced her candidacy Thursday. She says she would look to emulate the work of progressive prosecutors focused on counteracting racial disparities in the justice system.

A defense attorney who has spent the bulk of career in the juvenile justice arena, Graham says last summer’s racial justice movement, which was galvanized by the murder of George Floyd, pushed her to consider running, as did Sarcone’s prosecution of Sahouri.

Graham currently serves as the attorney and guardian ad litem for children in the Polk County Recovery Court Program, a position which she says entails extensive research and investigation and an objective view of the facts in order to recommend what’s best for the child in question, work which she argues isn’t far off from a county attorney’s responsibility to “seek truth and justice”.

“To me, a lot of this work that the county attorney's office could be doing, some of it may sound like so-called “social work”, but I just call it investments in our communities. We all want our communities to be safer.”
-Kimberly Graham, candidate for Polk County Attorney

Drawn to the policy and administrative aspects of the job, Graham is pushing ideas aimed at counteracting racial inequities in Iowa’s criminal justice system, which rank among the starkest in the nation.

Among her early commitments, Graham says her “default policy” would be to not prosecute low level marijuana possession, seen as a driver of racial disparities among incarcerated Iowans. She says her office would prioritize diversion programs and social services.

“To me, a lot of this work that the county attorney's office could be doing, some of it may sound like so-called “social work”, but I just call it investments in our communities," Graham said. "We all want our communities to be safer.”

Graham said she’s open to selective non-enforcement of other offenses as well, so long as it’s been shown to be an effective strategy. Graham said she would also make data and analytics a new focus for the office, saying she would welcome a collaboration with outside researchers and academics.

“Whether it's Drake [University], ISU, University of Iowa, invite researchers and statisticians into the office to help us keep the data because part of the problem is the opacity, the lack of transparency that a lot of offices have,” Graham said.

In line with steps taken by other prosecutors across the country, Graham said she would establish a conviction integrity unit staffed by attorneys whose sole focus is to scrutinize the office’s past convictions for exculpatory evidence or other issues.

“There's so much potential for as I call it, reimagining public safety [...] I would love to have the ability to advocate for that and to advocate for a fuller more holistic picture of public safety in Polk County."
-Kimberly Graham, candidate for Polk County attorney

“That is something that I believe is critical. I believe that prosecutors are supposed to be there to seek truth and justice,” Graham said. “A prosecutor should be just as content with an acquittal, right? As with a conviction. Because they should put forward their best evidence and if the system finds that that person shouldn't have been convicted, then that should be acceptable. It shouldn't be the sort of, prosecution at all costs.”

By declining to prosecute certain offenses, Graham says she envisions redirecting office resources to a slate of other efforts, whether its processing a backlog of rape kits and prioritizing the prosecution of sexual assault cases, expanding support for victims of crimes with a focus on people of color, or funneling resources to alternative programs like drug courts and mental health courts.

“There's so much potential for as I call it, reimagining public safety,” Graham said. “I would love to have the ability to advocate for that and to advocate for a fuller more holistic picture of public safety in Polk County.”