D.A. candidates take a nuanced view on crime-fighting

The race to become the first new Los Angeles County district attorney in more than a decade has veered away from the traditional campaign script of getting tough on criminals, with candidates instead touting a more nuanced approach to public safety.

In a conspicuous shift from previous district attorney elections, this campaign has been marked by serious discussions — and unusual agreement — on the need for crime prevention programs and rehabilitation of more nonviolent offenders rather than simply locking them up. Several candidates on Tuesday’s ballot said voters have been clear that they want violent felons behind bars but believe the justice system can do more to prevent crime by ending the revolving door for low-level criminals and juveniles.

The change comes after more than a decade of falling crime and as the state’s financial crisis is forcing law enforcement officials to grapple with the high costs of incarcerating criminals.

California can ill afford to build more lockups, and a federal court order requires the state to reduce the population of its teeming prisons. As the state diverts thousands of inmates to county jails, which are already releasing inmates before their sentences are complete, most district attorney candidates are stressing the need to reserve limited jail space for those who deserve it most.

“Everybody gets it and understands it,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who is one of six candidates running to become the county’s top prosecutor. “Thank goodness the days are gone when people said, ‘I’m going to lock everyone up and throw away the key.’”

Today’s political and fiscal environment is far different from 20 or 30 years ago, when candidates had little to lose by calling for longer sentences for criminals without accounting for the financial cost, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

“You could go as far on the toughness scale as you could go without being hurt. That may no longer be true,” Sonenshein said. “The tectonic plates are moving a little.... It’s an actual dialogue between voters and candidates on a topic that dialogue was previously not even a possibility.”

How far attitudes have shifted will be tested this fall when Californians vote on a ballot measure that repeals the death penalty. Sonenshein and others, however, caution that being seen as soft on violent crime remains political suicide, and none of the district attorney contenders have proposed going easy on serious criminals.

All but one of the candidates are career prosecutors with the district attorney’s office. The exception, L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, worked as a county prosecutor in the 1980s, handling gang and environmental crimes and successfully trying a death penalty case before leaving for private practice. Today, he runs the city office that, as well as defending against lawsuits and providing city officials with legal advice, prosecutes misdemeanors.

Most of the candidates say they would add resources to target various types of crimes, such as environmental pollution, public corruption and cyber crimes. But the top contenders have also made tackling the underlying causes of crime a key part of their platforms.

Among their proposals are adding more intervention programs for nonviolent criminals, developing initiatives to reduce truancy and expanding alternative sentencing courts that divert the mentally ill, drug addicts and other low-level offenders to services that address their problems instead of jail.

In television ads, Trutanich and rival Alan Jackson tout their credentials in combating gangs but then quickly stress the need to modernize the office, expand community outreach and add after-school programs. “I’m running for district attorney because every child should have a chance,” Jackson says at the end of his television commercial.

Jackson’s political strategist, John Thomas, said his campaign polling showed that Jackson’s career as a prosecutor, particularly his time in the district attorney’s hard-core gang division, appealed to voters. But Thomas said he was struck by how much his candidate’s call for intervention programs and rehabilitation also resonated among men and women, Democrats and Republicans.

“They want the bad guys locked up, but they want the crime problem to be stopped before it can start, to prevent kids from going into gangs,” Thomas said.

Calling himself “The True Crimefighter,” Trutanich says he will advocate for substance abuse, anger management, job training and other programs for nonserious offenders. “Voters are sick and tired of our state’s unsustainable addiction to spending gigantic sums of taxpayer money on prisons — instead of schools,” Trutanich said in a statement released by his campaign.

Two others on the ballot, Bobby Grace and Danette Meyers, have successfully tried death penalty cases but support the November initiative that would replace capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole. They argue that the long delays in executions are intolerable and that the system is broken.

Backing the repeal of capital punishment would have been unthinkable for a credible contender in the race a decade ago, said John Lynch, a retired prosecutor who narrowly lost a bruising election campaign against then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti in 1996.

“It’s not unusual to have the anti-death penalty candidate or someone who talks about rehabilitation being the goal, but they’re not usually a serious candidate,” said Lynch, who has endorsed Meyers.

Meyers is running on a platform of “smart justice,” pledging to reduce the number of juveniles tried as adults and partnering with schools to slash dropout rates. Her campaign slogan echoes the “smart on crime” message that Kamala D. Harris used to win the 2010 state attorney general’s race, defeating Meyers’ current boss, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

“In today’s world, the D.A. has a huge role in society,” Meyers said, “and the D.A. should be at the forefront of talking about rehabilitation.”

When Cooley became district attorney in 2000, he did so while accusing his boss of wasting resources on crime prevention programs that were well-intentioned but not part of the office’s priority of putting criminals behind bars. Today, only one candidate, John L. Breault III, who is running the most low-key campaign, has raised a similar argument, questioning where the money for such programs would come from.

“Twelve years later, that’s a hell of a difference,” said political consultant Bill Carrick, who ran Garcetti’s campaign.

Still, any shift in attitudes should not be overblown, said John C. Eastman, a professor at Chapman University School of Law who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican attorney general nomination in 2010. Californians, he said, remain inherently wary about crime. A series of high-profile crimes committed by felons released early from jail as a result of realignment could see voters once more gravitate to “tough on crime” messages, he said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that as early as this November or 2014 that it’s back center stage,” he said.