Douglas County District Attorney candidates discussed issues surrounding sexual assault and racism during a virtual town hall hosted by Student Senate Friday night via Zoom.

Candidates Suzanne Valdez, Cooper Overstreet and incumbent DA Charles Branson responded to questions submitted by students after giving their opening statements. Questions largely revolved around the candidates’ stances on addressing racial disparities in prosecution and reporting sexual assault.

Valdez, a KU law professor, argued that her opponents would not be fit to handle cases of sexual assault because of their history with such cases. Valdez referred to Branson’s charging of three false sexual assault reports in 2018 and a case in which Overstreet, a defense attorney, argued that a 15 year-old girl could not be a victim of aggravated indecent liberties with a child because “life begins at fertilization” and the child would then be 16.

“Survivors feel they can’t be safe because of the lack of compassion, the lack of follow-through in investigation and the poor treatment by calling them liars,” Valdez said of Branson’s charging of false sexual assault reports.

Branson said he and his office have been learning and growing since the charges were dropped, and prosecutors and detectives in the DA office will be undergoing a two-day training in August to understand how to work with survivors of sexual assault. Branson dropped the false reporting charges in October 2019 after the case gained publicity, saying he feared it would discourage survivors from coming forward.

Overstreet said, as a defense attorney, although his argument in the 2018 may have been “unpopular," he was doing his job to advocate for his client. He argued that, as DA, he would advocate for survivors as he advocated for his clients as a district attorney.

Candidates were also asked how they would address racial disparities in prosecution. Overstreet proposed a reconstruction of the criminal justice system, and primarily he focused on eliminating cash bail.

“We’ve seen over and over again that cash bail is the number one drive of mass incarceration in this country and right here in Douglas County,” Overstreet said. “Mass incarceration itself is the number one perpetuator of harm on communities of color in this country.”

He also proposed an anti-racism task force which would bring in leaders of color in Douglas County to work toward eliminating systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Branson said addressing the issue of racial disparities in prosecution would require looking at the system’s policies and how they perpetuate small inequalities. He said a shift to more equitable policies in the DA’s office would allow for equal access for all citizens regardless of race.

“Our systemic racism problem in our criminal justice system goes beyond prosecution and sentencing, it goes to the whole entire system,” Branson said. “It’s all the small inequalities that build up over time.”

Valdez said she would focus on investing prevention and diversion programs which would aim towards lowering the disproportionate amount of Black and brown people in jail.

Early voting for the Democratic primary begins July 15. The election is Aug. 4.

Voting in the primary will likely determine who wins the district attorney race, as no other candidates have filed from different political parties.