Los Angeles County voters will soon select a new district attorney, and it likely will be their most consequential vote in years. It is hard to overstate the role that the top prosecutor of the nation's most populous county will have as California completely reinvents its justice system. Residents must demand a D.A. who will do his or her utmost to keep them safe, while at the same time embracing reform and ensuring smarter, and less costly, punishment and supervision of nonviolent criminals.
Jackie Lacey is the candidate best equipped to strike the proper balance. She has years of experience leading the office, as well as realistic goals and a well-thought-out program for delivering justice. The Times endorses Lacey in the June 5 election.
Lacey currently serves as Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's top deputy, and before that was his assistant in charge of line operations and his director of central operations.
But in style and policy, she is no Cooley clone. She wants to reinvigorate the office's environmental crimes unit and put a new emphasis on computer crime. She says she intends to give new focus and attention to alternative sentencing courts — specialized venues that have shown promise in breaking the cycle of crime, prison, reentry and re-offending for veterans, women, drug addicts and the mentally ill.
It's the right emphasis at the right time. Some conservative states, such as Texas and Georgia, are radically rethinking their tough-on-crime positions and creating, from the political right, an approach that sweeps aside the former lock 'em-up policies in favor of cost-controlled, evidence-based restorative justice. The emphasis is on reducing recidivism, making crime victims whole emotionally as well as financially whenever possible, and reserving prison cells only for those who pose a danger to society. Liberal California, by contrast, remains a tough-on-crime state, operating on 30 years of fear-fueled draconian voter initiatives that filled the prisons.
But California is now at a crossroads. In November, voters will consider whether to eliminate the death penalty in favor of life without the possibility of parole. There may also be a ballot measure to modify the state's three-strikes law. Most important, California is dealing with a revolutionary change in prison policy known among government wonks and district attorney candidates as AB 109 realignment. That law shifts responsibility for many criminals from the state to the counties. Handled poorly, it could end the region's historic drop in crime. But handled properly — with enough funding for criminal supervision, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation — it could be California's successful answer to conservative states' smart-on-crime approach.
The district attorney will play a key role in realignment's success or failure.
Other candidates for the job acknowledge the changes at hand and profess to embrace them. On paper, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich embraces restorative justice with a detailed program for dealing with juvenile offenders, addicts and recidivists. But his still-short record as city attorney is mixed. To have more faith in his ability to balance public safety and rehabilitation, voters need to see more progress in the city attorney's office on areas such as allowing — and encouraging and helping — former gang members to get off injunction lists that make them into permanent suspects so they can get on with productive lives.
Trutanich is not the disaster portrayed by many of his critics. He can be bombastic, but after a rough first year he has adopted a savvier, quieter approach. He avoids news conferences. Still, he does not seem to grasp that voters took seriously his pledge not to run for another office before completing his job as city attorney. It may have been just a campaign gimmick to him, but it was a pledge to his constituents — and it was all too typical of the occasional gap between Trutanich's statements and his actions.
Deputy Dist. Attys. Alan Jackson and Danette Meyers have admirable qualities for criminal prosecutors — passion, drive and a sense of mission. But they lack Lacey's management skills and experience, and like Trutanich, they lack Lacey's deftness at discussing important issues without becoming dismissive or inflammatory. Lacey, for example, is unhappy with realignment but acknowledges that it is here to stay and offers ideas to make certain it works. Jackson's unrealistic position is to demand that realignment be repealed.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace brings insight and passion to the debate, and he may match Lacey in his grasp of the present moment in criminal justice. But he lacks her leadership experience. John L. Breault III, another prosecutor, has run a low-key campaign; he hasn't convinced us that he's up to the challenge of the office.
Lacey would certainly need to rise to the occasion as she moved from the chief deputy's office to the top job. She would need to lay out a clear vision for the department of 1,000 lawyers and 200 law enforcement officers and then work to make it a reality. But she has the knowledge, the perspective and the steady hand to do it. Los Angeles County residents would be in good hands with Lacey as their district attorney.