When voters head to the polls on March 3, they will make one choice that could change the course of criminal justice policy in Los Angeles County.
Two-term incumbent Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is trying to fend off a pair of challengers who embody a nationwide push to elect more progressive prosecutors: former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and former Los Angeles County public defender Rachel Rossi.
The three candidates have engaged in a hotly contested campaign that included a combative January debate marked by raucous protests, which Lacey cited as a reason to turn down further public debates. The race has also attracted millions of dollars in outside money from police unions backing Lacey and Northern California progressives hoping to boost Gascón’s chances.
So where does each candidate stand on some of the biggest issues affecting public safety in Los Angeles County? Who supports them? How did they get here? Below, The Times breaks down each candidate’s resume and positions on key issues ahead of Tuesday’s primary:
Lacey, 63, became a deputy district attorney in 1986 and rose to be former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s second in command before she was elected to replace him in 2012. She ran unopposed for a second term in 2016. She is the first woman and first African American to be elected district attorney in L.A. County.
Under her leadership, the office has won a number of high-profile cases, convicting the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer and securing a plea deal that sent Marion “Suge” Knight to prison for 28 years on manslaughter charges. Last month, she brought sexual assault charges against fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, already convicted on similar charges in New York City this week.
Community activists have criticized her for declining to bring charges against police officers in a number of high-profile use-of-force cases.
A career cop, Gascón, 65, rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming an assistant chief. He went on to serve as police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and San Francisco, before he was appointed district attorney there in 2011. He served two terms before stepping down to challenge Lacey last year.
One of the stars of a nationwide push to elect progressive prosecutors, Gascón was a co-author of Proposition 47, the controversial bill that reduced a number of felonies to misdemeanors. He was also among the first prosecutors in the nation to successfully expunge a wide array of marijuana convictions after Californians voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis and helped set the table for San Francisco’s shift from the use of cash bail.
Law enforcement groups and others said his policies led to a surge in property crimes in San Francisco.
The newest face in the contest, Rossi, 36, served as a county and federal public defender in Los Angeles for several years. She went on to serve as a legal advisor to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and aided him in crafting the First Step Act, which reduced some mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level and increased the chances for minimum-risk inmates to receive early release.
She worked as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on criminal justice reform issues. Rossi is running as an outsider and reformer. Some have questioned her lack of prosecutorial experience.
Where do they stand?
Lacey issued a directive in 2017 to make defendants eligible for a pre-filing diversion program if they had been charged with some low-level non-violent crimes, including simple drug possession and drinking in public. The move, she said, could be beneficial to homeless defendants often charged with those crimes.
She also joined a multiagency effort to void warrants and tickets for more than 2 million minor offenses, the fines for which also often prove to be a roadblock to services and housing.
Gascón directed prosecutors in San Francisco to stop prosecuting homeless defendants and those with substance abuse problems for low-level and nonviolent offenses. He has also pushed for the expansion of a pre-booking diversion program, launched in San Francisco, for low-level drug offenders as an alternative to jail.
Rossi has said crimes such as public urination and sleeping outside should never be prosecuted. If elected, she would urge deputy district attorneys to consider not filing charges if a homeless defendant committed only a crime out of need. She has also vowed to prosecute landlords who unfairly raise rents and work to stop other practices that contribute to homelessness.
Lacey continues to support capital punishment, and her line prosecutors has sent 22 people to California’s death row since 2012. Lacey has said her office uses the threat of execution sparingly, seeking the death penalty in only 3% of all eligible cases in 2018.
Rossi and Gascón have both said they will not seek the death penalty in any cases if elected. Gascón this week announced a plan to seek to resentence defendants sentenced to death by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, if elected.
Lacey is supported by the unions representing LAPD officers, county sheriff’s deputies and deputy district attorneys. She also has the backing of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco) and U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
Gascón won the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-San Francisco) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Despite the opposition from rank-and-file officers, Gascón also has the support of former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who is the interim head of the Chicago Police Department.
Rossi shared the endorsement with Gascón of the Real Justice political action committee, which has backed a number of progressive candidates in district attorney’s races across the nation. She also picked up endorsements from a number of political organizations in Los Angeles including the Black L.A. Young Democrats and the Los Angeles African American Women’s political action committee.
Lacey has prosecuted one law enforcement officer among a number of controversial shootings in L.A. County since 2012. She ignored Beck’s recommendation to charge an officer in the shooting of an unarmed homeless man in Venice in 2018 and also declined to charge a Long Beach police officer who shot an unarmed teen.
Lacey has noted the difficulty of successfully prosecuting law enforcement in such cases, and said critics rarely look at all the evidence in a case before passing judgment on a shooting. Records show her office has charged more than 90 police officers in misconduct cases since 2013.
Gascón has supported legislation that tightened rules on when officers can use deadly force in California. He did not file charges in any officer-involved shootings in San Francisco during his tenure, including the killing of Mario Woods. Records show 32 law enforcement officers faced charges during his tenure, including several sheriff’s deputies accused of organizing a jailhouse fight ring.
Rossi has said that, if elected, she would call on the state attorney general’s office to grant her power to have special prosecutors investigate officer use-of-force cases. The move, she said, would help avoid the inherent bias of a district attorney’s office making filing decisions involving police agencies with which they normally work alongside.