A former public defender is entering the race to be Los Angeles County district attorney, bringing a contrasting perspective to a field otherwise filled by career prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
Rachel Rossi announced her candidacy to unseat Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey on Tuesday afternoon, becoming the latest in a wave of self-professed reform candidates to challenge for D.A. posts in major cities in recent years.
“The prosecutor really is the key toward change and reform and focusing our policies in a direction of safety and smart efforts rather than blanket incarceration of people on all levels of offenses in a way that wastes taxpayer dollars and doesn’t promote public safety,” Rossi said in an interview with The Times.
Rossi, 37, joins former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon and L.A. County Deputy Dist. Attys. Richard Ceballos and Joseph Iniguez in the push to unseat Lacey. The deadline for candidates to file for the March 2020 primary is Dec. 6.
Similar to Lacey’s other challengers, Rossi appears intent on running a campaign promising reforms in the D.A.'s office. But she is the only contender in the field who does not come from a police or prosecutorial background, which Rossi believes gives her an edge over some of her more veteran opponents.
In recent years, public defenders have proved to be a force in district attorney’s races throughout the nation. Chesa Boudin, a former San Francisco public defender, claimed victory in the race to replace Gascon earlier this month, and former federal public defender Larry Krasner won a 2017 election in Philadelphia seen as one of the biggest victories in a national push to elect more progressive prosecutors.
Rossi, who grew up in the Inland Empire, served as a state and federal public defender in Los Angeles County from 2011 to 2017, then went to work for U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that job, Rossi helped draft the First Step Act, a bipartisan federal prison reform bill that reduced some mandatory minimum sentences and opened pathways to early release for lower-risk inmates.
Rossi said she had always planned to return to Los Angeles after her stint in Washington and believes the race here provides a chance to redefine the role of elected prosecutors, which she believes is often misinterpreted.
“The role of a prosecutor historically has been to seek justice, not to seek incarceration and convictions. I think we’ve got that wrong; we’ve interpreted that as winning cases, racking up convictions, racking up years in jail,” she said. “People are starting to see, not only that it’s inhumane, not only that we’re the incarceration capital of the world, but that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t keep us safe.”
Rossi said that if elected she would strengthen diversionary programs to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system. She also wants to revise the office’s handling of cases involving mentally ill defendants.
While Lacey often touts her office’s diversionary program as evidence of her progressive bona fides, Rossi echoed concerns — often raised by defense attorneys — that access to the program is extremely limited.
“There should be medical input on who can be helped by diversion,” she said. “I think there are certain situations where someone has committed a crime and incarceration isn’t the right option, but some other kind of treatment is.”
Rossi also said she believes district attorney’s offices should be granted the power to appoint special prosecutors to review police shootings and other use-of-force cases. Critics say Lacey is reticent to charge officers involved in controversial shootings, and the issue is certain to become central to the 2020 race.
Lacey says her office is simply working within the law, which provides wide latitude to law enforcement officers when using deadly force. She has also sought to brand herself as a progressive in recent months, pushing to expunge low-level marijuana convictions after Californians voted to allow recreational cannabis use. Some observers have noted the shift came only after Gascon enacted a similar policy in 2018.
Rossi’s campaign will be run by Paula Ramirez, who served as L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s campaign manager and helped shape his upset win in 2018 against incumbent Jim McDonnell.
John Hanusz, a former federal public defender who worked alongside Rossi in Los Angeles, said he believes her background on the defense side of the aisle will bring critical issues to the forefront of a race dominated by prosecutors and former police officers.
“She will be a formidable adversary in this race just as she is in court and I think she’s got a bird’s-eye view of the criminal justice system, both as a practitioner and as a policy person in D.C.,” he said. “She knows the human and financial costs of mass incarceration and will bring those issues to the fore in this race.”