It happens like clockwork.
Candidates announce their bids for office. Then the attack ads follow in short order, unabashedly targeting their voting records and more.
We’re here to help. The Nevada Independent already produces fact-checks for political advertisements and off-the-cuff remarks, but we also want to get ahead of the campaign game.
When politicians announce their candidacy for public office, we’ll roll out “On the Record” — our look at their voting history and stances on a broad array of subjects.
Now up: Rob Langford, a longtime criminal defense attorney who filed to run against Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. Both Wolfson and Langford are Democrats.
Reasons for running
Langford filed to run on the last possible day to do so, and just a day after the publication of a Las Vegas Review-Journal story detailing how Wolfson declined to press charges or publicly report a close aide’s theft of $42,000 from his campaign account to cover a gambling habit.
But Langford, who has spent eight years on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he had been involved in recruiting what he called a more progressive challenger to Wolfson prior to the Review-Journal story, but decided to jump in the race himself after that potential candidate — whom he declined to name — decided not to run.
Langford, 59, said the office had typically been seen as an “entry-level” political position used as a stepping stone for higher-level office, but cited a growing awareness of the power of public prosecutors in the realm of criminal justice, coupled with the state’s prison population constantly over capacity.
“You know, all of Nevada would be affected by a progressive D.A. in Clark County,” he said. “And so I felt like somebody had step up.”
On several occasions in an interview, Langford cited progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has embarked on an ambitious overhaul of the department’s strategy and policies since being elected last November, including dropping minor marijuana and sex work cases, referring more cases to diversion courts and easing the city’s rules on probation.
Few other players in the criminal justice system have as much power as prosecutors, as author Michelle Alexander wrote in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow.
“Few rules constrain the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” she wrote. “The prosecutor is free to dismiss a case for any reason or no reason at all, regardless of the strength of the evidence. The prosecutor is also free to file more charges against a defendant than can realistically be proven in court, so long as probable cause arguably exists. Whether a good plea deal is offered to a defendant is entirely up to the prosecutor. And if the mood strikes, the prosecutor can transfer drug defendants to the federal system, where the penalties are more severe.”
Langford was sharply critical of Wolfson’s announcement in March that he would not work to vacate or seal away Nevada misdemeanor marijuana convictions, even as other jurisdictions with legal recreational marijuana have taken steps to reduce or seal away nonviolent marijuana convictions.
Although Wolfson told the Review-Journal that laws passed during the 2017 Legislature made it easier for those with marijuana-related convictions to seal their records, Langford said the decision to not take direct action to help those with convictions was “atrocious.”
“To say ‘I’m not going to help people,’ is the height of being out of touch with how those things hurt people, and how it’s hurting our community and particularly obviously people of color, and you propagate that,” he said.
Langford said he would direct the office and call for volunteers to review incarceration records to ensure no one is currently behind bars due to a marijuana arrests or conviction, and then asking to have those convictions vacated. He said he would ask the 2019 Legislature to directly give the district attorney’s office a legal mechanism to do so, after Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a similar bill in 2017.
One of Langford’s top priorities is straightforward— end cash bail.
The idea of commercial cash bail — where defendants who are presumed innocent contract with an outside organization to post the full amount of a bail in order to be released before a trial in exchange for a nonrefundable percentage fee — is relatively rare internationally, as only two countries use it for the majority of pretrial releases — the U.S. and the Philippines.
Although the system is designed to ensure that defendants show up for trial, many critics, including Langford, said the system is both ineffective and preys on those least able to pay for it.
“Why is bail a bad thing?” he said. “Because again, it’s the working poor, and I’m going to say it focuses on the poor who don’t get out. If you commit this particular crime and the cash bail is $3,000 and this other person who’s rich, you know, then they just pay the $3,000, they get it back at the end. You’re poor, right, you can’t afford the whole $3,000. So you pay $450 to the bail bondsman. At the end of the case, this person is $450 richer.”
Langford said he would take a cue from federal court, where judges rarely assign bail and instead either keep defendants locked up or use things like GPS monitors or intensive supervision programs to keep tabs on defendants.
“If you were not a flight risk and you are not a danger to the community, you shouldn’t be in jail,” he said.
Nevada participated in a pilot program testing in a handful of courtrooms whether defendants can be released without bail. A bill in the 2017 Legislature that would have allowed courts to use an evidence-based “risk assessment tool” to decide whether or not to release a person without bail, and prohibited judges from relying solely on a standardized bail schedule, was vetoed by Sandoval.
Unlike Krasner, who ousted 31 employees of the Philadelphia's District Attorney’s office in his first week in office, Langford said he had no plans to fire or remove any of the office’s current attorneys and staff if elected.
He said the office had a large enough workload as is, and said he believed issues with the office — including racial disparities in sentencing and enforcement — were more institutional than inherent to individual attorneys.
“So do I think that there are overt racists in the Clark County district attorney's office? I have not met one, okay?” he said. “Do I think that the office itself suffers from institutional racism? I’d bet money on it. In fact, I’m willing to bet a couple of months of my life on it so that we can change that.”
Langford also criticized Wolfson for what he called a lack of transparency, saying he would welcome academic groups and others to scrutinize the office’s practices and record to identify potential problem areas, rather than pretending everything is fine.
“I know that we’re going to find huge racial disparities,” he said. “I believe we’re probably going to find some institutional racism. I believe that. But until we say that’s a possibility and we’re okay with finding that out so we can change it, we’re never going to change it. We’re going to be stuck with the same old model of arrest, prosecute and incarcerate.”
Langford said he would also take cues from Krasner and try to push as many cases as possible into a pretrial diversion program, expanding those programs into judicial and municipal courts, and to send defendants to diversion courts before filing charges.
“My question is, ‘Why the heck do we have to get an attorney involved?’” he said. “Like everything else, everybody agrees, whenever you have to get an attorney involved your price goes up, right? Cost goes way up. Why can’t we, when a person is first arrested make that evaluation and say this is a person that should go to the diversion court.”
Although he is not outright opposed to the death penalty, Langford criticized the current district attorney’s office for how it approaches death penalty cases.
Wolfson has reduced the number of death penalty cases sought compared to his predecessor, but his office is still an outlier both in the state and nationally in the number of capital punishment cases sought. A 2015 review by the Fair Punishment Project reported that Clark County approved nine death sentences between 2011 and 2015, including six under Wolfson’s tenure.
Langford accused the office of using the death penalty as a negotiating tactic, which he called “medieval,” and that the office was spending millions of dollars to bring those cases forward, despite actual executions being relatively rare.
“We’ve been litigating millions and millions of dollars of litigation year in and year out, and they are not being executed nor should they be, in my opinion, because they’re not the worst of the worse and/or the manner in which the case was litigated is faulty,” he said. “So I think that it’s insane the amount of money that we’re spending, and at some point somebody has to stand up and say no.”
As an example, he pointed to all of the recent litigation around Scott Dozier, the inmate who has given up all appeals on his death penalty case but has nonetheless spent months in court amid a battle over the correct drug cocktail the state will use in the execution.
“How much money was spent just on deciding whether the one drug was going to work the way they intended it to work?” he asked.
He said that shifting resources away from capital punishment cases would free up attorneys in the office to focus on other, more pressing cases.
“If you’re not doing a death penalty case, you’re doing better job on other cases,” he said. “You have more resources to spend on other cases. You know, there is a reason that Metro and the district attorney’s office can’t really prosecute residential burglaries the way they should, because we spend all our time on death penalty cases that people end up that they’re really life without possibility of parole cases.”
In an unusual move, both Culinary Union Local 226 and the Service Employees International Union of Nevada — two of the state’s largest unions — endorsed Langford over Wolfson.
“I understand they’re going to do everything they possibly can to get me elected, and that’s what I’ve been told and I got to believe that, you know, an endorsement is not just an ‘Oh yeah, we endorse this guy.’ It’s really unusual for them to not endorse the incumbent,” he said. “That can’t be stressed enough.”
Despite the union support, Langford still has an uphill climb to defeat Wolfson. The incumbent reported raising just over $618,000 throughout 2017, has gone up with television ads and counts the support of prominent Nevada politicians, including former U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, who headlined a fundraiser for Wolfson earlier this month.
Langford said he believed he could reach out directly to Democratic primary voters, and criticized Wolfson for not highlighting his party affiliation in his campaign material.
“Here’s the thing: if you don’t have any ideas and you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation, you put up a big boring billboard with your name 10 feet tall because you’re cynically betting that the typical voter, and of course (Nevada Independent editor) Jon Ralston would probably agree with this, the typical voter only understands name recognition, and it’s just about name recognition. I really hope that’s not true. I really hope that you can target voters and have a conversation with them about why there needs to be change and be successful with that.”
DISCLOSURE: Langford's partner, Matthew Rashbrook, has done pro bono work for The Nevada Independent