GOODING | Both Gooding County prosecutor candidates say they’d make children — and helping to prevent them from entering the court system — a priority, but differ on their stances on prosecuting other crimes.

Incumbent Luverne Shull faces challenger Matt Pember — a private practice attorney who’s also Camas County prosecutor — during the May 17 election.

One main difference between the candidates: Pember wants to be prosecutor in two counties — Gooding and Camas County. Schull would be prosecutor just in Gooding County.

Pember, 42, has held the contract as Camas County prosecutor since 2012. If it came to a point where he had to choose between the two counties, he said, he’d keep Gooding County.

Shull, 60, has nearly 20 years of legal experience in the Magic Valley. He started working in the Gooding County Prosecutor’s Office in 2005 and was elected prosecutor in 2012.

He said implementing restorative justice practices is one of his greatest accomplishments as prosecutor, calling it “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking.” He said he’s proud of his work with children, lowering the incarceration rate and overuse of the court system.

The goal of the restorative justice initiative is to increase school attendance, increase graduation rates and decrease incarceration rates. There are several committees: the steering group, court, meaningful work, diversion board, family unity and education.

There’s a board of community volunteers — which has been in place for at least 20 years — that works with children, such as to have them serve community service or write an apology letter.

“If they’re successful, we don’t file charges or a conviction,” Shull said, and keep their record clean.

Shull said he rejuvenated the community volunteer board when he became prosecutor.

If reelected, Shull said his number one focus would be on children — preventing them from entering the system as criminals.

Pember said he’s hearing “Gooding is light on crime and I don’t disagree with that.” The prosecutor's office isn’t pushing for long enough sentences for the crimes involved, he said.

He said he’s a fan of the juvenile justice program, but everything has gone that route. “There’s sort of a gap in the justice system over there.”

Having the “right punishment for the right crime” would send a message to discourage crime from coming to Gooding County, Pember said, adding they can convince people that Gooding and the Magic Valley “aren’t a place for their drug habit.”

The punishment for a crime depends on individual circumstances, Pember said, whether someone should undergo counseling, or serve time in jail or prison. But the jail and prison system is overburdened, he said.

If elected, Pember said he’d like to keep the same staff at the prosecutor’s office. He said he’d hope they’d get a pay rise and the training they’d need to stay.

Pember said he believes the incumbent — Shull — isn’t putting in the time and effort he needs into the job, and that the heavy lifting falls on his staff.

The candidates both said drugs in Gooding County are a problem. “I think heroin is going to be here soon,” Schull said, noting methamphetamine and OxyContin are already an issue.

Shull said a trend he has seen as prosecutor is shorter sentences for drug possession. People don’t want to invest in long-term lockups, he said, want people who have addictions to go the rehabilitation route instead.

But law enforcement agencies are showing some resistance to softening their stances on drug crimes, he said.

Drug abuse — and the crimes that follow — is the most significant criminal problem in the county, Pember said. And it leads to other crimes — “everything under the sun,” he said.

As a prosecutor, Pember said his priority would be children. If problems can be caught early, cycles — such as of crime, drugs and abuse — can be stopped, he said. “We need to do something to break the cycle.”

During a meeting with the Times-News editorial board, Pember talked about Camas County’s community policing, such as allowing underage children who are found in possession of alcohol to do community service as punishment. 

He also brought up that the Wendell School District wants a full-time school resource officer, instead of sharing with Gooding.

Pember said his goal as prosecutor would be to be more cooperative and open with the public. He said he’d want to work with community leaders, school officials and law enforcement to help prevent crime and recidivism.

Pember worked for six years — from 2004 to 2010 — as deputy prosecutor in the Twin Falls County Prosecutor’s Office under Grant Loebs. He handled primarily civil cases, but also had a misdemeanor schedule and handled felony cases from time-to-time.

He also handled two-thirds of the child protection cases, he said. “That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart.”

As prosecutor, Shull his primary duty is to pursue the truth. And he said it’s his responsibility to dismiss a case if there’s not enough evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We have to rise above our urge to win to be under the rule of law on some occasions,” he said.

With the public defender system, “I think we’ve made some great improvements over here,” Shull said, adding he encouraged the switch about a year ago from contracting with an attorney to hiring a full-time public defender.

Pember is based in Twin Falls and has worked in private practice for six years. It's not nearly as satisfying as public service, he said, where you know you’re “doing right by people.”