Summer Stephan on Justice, Motherhood, and Not Taking Shortcuts
The San Diego County District Attorney is a pioneer in her field and prosecutes difficult cases, yet says she brings a maternal touch to her work
Over the course of 29 years, Summer Stephan has risen through the ranks from deputy DA to elected district attorney. “I literally grew up in this office,” she says, and insists that she’s not political. “I’m just a person who wants to bring about justice and safety for people in San Diego County.”
Stephan pioneered the first Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Division, a special victims unit that went on to become a national model. She employs a thousand professionals, including 300 prosecutors, who file 40,000 cases each year, making hers the second-largest DA office in California.
Despite the paperwork, Stephan never loses sight of what really drives her: She has a soft spot for the most vulnerable—those without a voice. “How do we bring the law as a sword and a shield to protect them from harm? To bring them justice? That’s my singular focus.”
On hard work:
I think for my team, it’s been very exciting to see a regular person who’s worked every day of her life make it to this position. In society, we see people that rise to power but fall because they’ve taken so many shortcuts. And their ego gets so large because they haven’t actually grinded away at the daily work. We see this in the college admissions scandal. Shortcuts, especially in the area of hard work and character, are dead ends.
On work-life balance:
I don’t think I’ve ever really achieved balance, but I’ve also never lost sight of what’s most important in life, and that’s my family, my faith, my community that I serve. I call my mom every day. I make sure my kids are okay.
On going into law:
When I was 12 years old I read National Geographic and saw an article about girls in a small place called Socotra [in Yemen] that were being abused, sexually abused, malnourished, and everything else. I told my parents, ‘I’m flying over there. I’m going to fix this.’ Ever since then, that’s been the driving force for me. If I wasn’t the people’s prosecutor, the voice for justice and safety for the community, I would do something to help people.
About that girl power in city hall:
When I started in the DA’s office in 1990, there were very few women prosecutors. Now, I’m very proud that half of our deputy district attorneys are women. We really value diversity and inclusion. We aim to have our team represent the face of the community—the languages, the culture, the race, the religion, the ethnicity, every aspect—so that when our victims, our witnesses see us, they feel comfortable. It’s that, “Oh, I can relate to this person. They’re just like me.” That builds community trust. In other regions where there is no trust, people don’t report crime. They don’t cooperate with law enforcement, and that allows the criminal elements to grow and take over. I’m the top public safety official in San Diego County. I’m very proud to work with the sheriff and 11 police chiefs. Many of them are men, but I never feel like there’s anything different because I’m a woman. They treat me with respect, and I treat them with respect. Women have come a long way, but that doesn’t just happen by numbers. It happens with professionalism and accomplishment, true grit and hard work.
On bringing a maternal touch to prosecution:
Our mission as a DA’s office is to pursue fair and equal justice for all. We do this three ways: ethically prosecute those who harm our community; protect victims, and give them dignity and respect; and prevent crime where we can—because once crime happens, once a child is abused, a woman is exploited, we’re behind the game. It’s already too late. The prevention of crime is really important to me. I’ve spent almost 30 years looking in the eyes of pain, looking at people who have lost so much, and there’s a gaping hole in their heart.
I bring to prosecution that sense of a mother and of a community, of taking care of people from every end. I really believe that you can be an excellent prosecutor while making sure that we take care of people, and that we view each victim, each individual in our criminal justice system as our brother, our sister, our family member, and we treat them that way.
Erin Meanley Glenny: Tell us about some of your public safety initiatives.
Summer Stephan: We’re working on many fronts, and human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in our community. It hurts our kids. We’ve studied 25 schools, and in 90 percent of them, there are identified cases of human trafficking.
This battle to save our kids from being exploited for sex or labor is a passion for me. I pioneered the first sex crimes and human trafficking division that has become a national model, so we’re very proud of bringing that to San Diego and across the country. We get visited by many delegations for the things we’re doing.
The way we protect against human trafficking is, again, we take out the gangsters and cartels that are exploiting women, children, men, and boys into sex trafficking and labor trafficking. We also protect those victims. We connect them with services to make sure they have a home, find a job, or work on their education. We also work on prevention through big campaigns like Ugly Truth San Diego that bring awareness, and now we’re bringing this education to all our schools through a prevention education collective.
We’re also stepping up our domestic violence efforts, because we’re seeing that it’s still one of the deadliest crimes for women across the United States and in San Diego.
EMG: Regarding domestic violence, I heard strangling is very common.
SS: Yes, and strangulation is one of the big pre-indicators that you’re going to have a homicide. Because of that, we’ve worked with our police department to bring a new protocol where nurses are able to examine for signs of strangulation. That can literally be lifesaving, because when somebody chokes their intimate partner, it’s a sign that their control obsession is so heightened they could commit homicide. By putting this protection in place, we can save lives.
EMG: Let’s talk about school shootings.
SS: We’ve put in place a school threats protocol where we work with all our schools and our law enforcement, because we see across the country that sometimes when shooters act, there are pre-indicators. When they act, people think this is something that just happened in the spur of the moment. In 93 percent of the cases these aren’t just spontaneous events. Nothing is foolproof, but we’ve put together a coordinated effort so that every threat is documented, tracked, and dealt with at the right level.
EMG: In cases involving child abuse, I understand you’ve adopted interviewing techniques designed to avoid re-traumatizing children.
SS: I tried the last school shooting case that happened in San Diego County. That was the Kelly Elementary School shooting in 2010 where a whole community was terrorized and a couple hundred small children were on the playing field when this happened.
Two little girls were shot, and they miraculously survived, which is incredible. In fact, for Mother’s Day, I just received a card from one of those girls. That’s the close relationship you can have; I thought of those children as our children. They’re not just witnesses. They’re not just victims. It wasn’t about just getting the conviction. It was about making sure we take care of those children. We don’t re-traumatize them, and we make sure we bring the services to them.
With those kids, we brought about the concept of forensic interviews. It’s been around for a while but it hadn’t been applied to a mass-shooting scene where you have that many witnesses. We brought forensic-trained interviewers that knew how to interview kids in a trauma-informed way, so they let them tell the story, get it off their chest, without putting words in their mouth or adding stress to them.
We brought the interviewers to the school. We videotaped the interviews. That way, no one else—police, prosecutors, defense—needed to interview those kids. It turned out that being able to be interviewed that way actually brought comfort to the kids. We learned from the interviews that the kids had not fully shared with even their parents how terrifying this was to them, because even at five years old, they wanted to not make Mommy sad. These kids wanted to be little heroes and protect their own families. By being able to tell a grown-up about it, it really added to their healing.
EMG: Last year, the governor signed the California Money Bail Reform Act, making California the first state to abolish bail for suspects awaiting trial. How has that new law affected your office so far this year?
SS: Our office was already ahead of this, because we believe there should be safe bail reform. One thing that really gets to me is having a very rich child predator or serial molester who’s able to make bail and be out, and then you have somebody in custody who’s poor and has committed a low-level offense but who’s not violent or serious. This has been an effort that we were working on even before the law [passed].
We’re very proud of the work that’s being done to make bail much more fair and safe for all in the community. We’ve introduced risk assessment tools that are objective, that measure the person’s risk to commit a crime, to continue to violate while they’re out of custody, as opposed to how much money is in their pocketbook.
In San Diego County, our numbers are very different than across the state. Eighty percent of the people that are in our jails have already been convicted of a crime. They’re not just there sitting awaiting trial. And in the 20 percent remaining, the large percentage are charged with serious or violent felonies, so they should be in custody because they’re dangerous. We’ve done a good balance of these issues to make sure that our community is safe, but also that we guard everybody’s rights.