hen Hamilton County voters go to the polls this November, they will encounter a rare occurrence: They actually will have a choice for county prosecutor.
In recent years, few candidates have been willing to challenge longtime Republican incumbent Joe Deters. In the four elections where Deters has run for the job, he had no Democratic opposition in two of them, and easily won in the other two.
That’s partially due to Deters’ popularity in the GOP-dominated county, where he’s carefully crafted a reputation as a “law and order” conservative during a 23-year career in the political arena.
Nearly a quarter of Ohio’s death row inmates come from Hamilton County, even though only nine percent of the state’s murders happen here. Forty-three percent of defendants charged with a capital crime in Hamilton County receive a death sentence, statistics show, and a defendant is 2.7 times more likely to receive a death sentence in this county than the rest of Ohio.
Deters typically is proud of such statistics, and his hard-charging persona plays well in suburban areas like Blue Ash, Sharonville and Green Township.
But the lack of competition against Deters also is due to more complicated reasons. Anyone seeking the prosecutor’s job must be a practicing attorney, and that means the candidate must appear before area judges during his or her work. As a former local Republican Party chairman who still is a major force in the GOP, Deters had a role in selecting many of the sitting judges to be the party’s candidate in their respective judicial races.
Whether the fear is justified, many attorneys believe that would place them at a disadvantage in their careers if they unsuccessfully challenged Deters for his job, then returned to their law practices.
Janaya Trotter carefully mulled those factors but she decided to run against Deters. If she is successful, she would be both the first woman and the first African-American prosecutor in Hamilton County’s history.
Trotter, 31, is a lifelong county resident who graduated from Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase Law College in 2008. She began her career as an assistant prosecutor for the city of Cincinnati, then worked for the Ritter & Randolph law firm in the litigation department before opening her own legal practice in Avondale.
It was her experience litigating cases, along with her internship at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), which prompted her to campaign for prosecutor.
“I loved being a prosecutor, but I left the city (Law Department) because there wasn’t much opportunity to practice different types of law,” she says. “When I started to do some defendant work, I saw the way the county office was being run and I didn’t like it.”
Among the items that disturbed Trotter was a “win at any cost” mentality by many attorneys in the county prosecutor’s office, even if they knew a defendant likely wasn’t guilty.
“People were more preoccupied with getting a win rather than on long-term results,” she says. “Of course, you should be concerned with not letting a person offend again, but if a person truly is not guilty we need to recognize that and look at what can be done.”
In fact, Trotter believes Deters’ approach to the job is counter-productive and has led to the county’s persistent problems with jail overcrowding. Alternatives to incarceration should be found for nonviolent offenders, she adds.
“The prosecutor has the ability to recommend some creative solutions to cut down on recidivism,” Trotter says. “The judges listen to what the prosecutors recommend.”
The solutions include more use of the local “Off the Streets” program, which assists women involved in prostitution with emergency needs, education and employment. “It saves the taxpayers money instead of locking these women up, and it just takes a five-minute phone call to get going,” she says.
Trotter sees the prosecutor’s job as two-fold: keeping the public safe from criminals and trying to fashion a punishment that keeps people from reoffending.
“Look at the recidivism rate, that part isn’t getting done,” she says. “My argument is whose job is it to do that and who’s going to do it so we can start getting the crime rate down.”
Local Democratic Party leaders are hopeful that Trotter is the person who can unseat Deters.
“Janaya has the guts and determination to take this on and we are honored to have her,” says Tim Burke, Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman. “The party has struggled in the past to find candidates to run for prosecutor. It is a daunting task. Whatever the faults of the incumbent may be, he possesses a well-funded political machine.”
The party will assist Trotter by publicizing her as part of the Democratic team on the Internet, as well as with absentee ballot chase pieces and on sample ballots in mailings and distributed at the polls, Burke adds.
David Singleton saw Trotter’s work first-hand while she interned at OJPC. Singleton is the director of the nonprofit law firm that works to reintegrate inmates into society and end racial disparities in prison sentencing.
Singleton was impressed by Trotter’s determination and intelligence, and encouraged her to run for public office. “I am a big fan of Janaya’s,” says Singleton, who also got to know her through OJPC’s indigent defense clinic, a service for public defenders. “She’s a star, totally fearless.”
For her part, Trotter wants to end the rampant cronyism at the prosecutor’s office — although that doesn’t mean replacing the current staff with all Democrats.
“There are some good staff members but the way hiring is done now lessens the quality of the representation. Instead of the best legal minds, we’re hiring our friends, our buddy’s friends and their children,” she says. “We need to start hiring based on ability and merit, and not party affiliation.” ©