As a junior at UC Irvine in 1978, Jackie Lacey was featured in a Seventeen magazine article profiling 13 young women. The first in her family to go to college, she had recently switched her career plan from being a grade school teacher to a lawyer.
“I can do more in the legal process to help people,” Lacey, then 21, told the magazine. “I’ve seen so many black people cheated by tradesmen or intimidated by the police because they have no knowledge of their legal rights. I’d like to help change that.”
Back then, Lacey said, becoming a prosecutor was the last thing on her agenda. The attorneys the black community looked up to were defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers.
“‘Prosecutor, what is that? Is that the person who puts people in jail?’ — that’s the view I had of the prosecutor’s office,” she said.
But that view changed. Earlier this month L.A. County voters elected Lacey district attorney, capping a 26-year career in the nation’s largest prosecutorial office. She also broke down some barriers, something noticed by many, including hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“Congrats to Jackie Lacey who became the first woman and African American to be elected District Attorney of Los Angeles! LETS GO! POWERFUL,” Combs tweeted the day after the election.
She drew other celebrity supporters, including former basketball star Magic Johnson and R&B; singer Macy Gray, who performed at Lacey’s election night party, confiding to the audience that she had been wooed by the candidate’s promise to have her over for peach cobbler.
The new D.A.-elect is going to have little time to celebrate her victory or perhaps even bake that cobbler. She’s faced with numerous challenges, ranging from prison realignment and court closures to choosing a new leadership team.
The job will also thrust her into the limelight as never before. Despite serving as outgoing Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s second-in-command, she spent the last decade largely away from the spotlight — until she ran for office. Her opponent, prosecutor Alan Jackson, on the other hand, had gotten media attention for cases like the murder trials of music producer Phil Spector, and regularly appeared on the NBC show “Unsolved Case Squad.”
Within the district attorney’s office, Lacey has been known for her down-to-earth persona and collaborative leadership style.
“I would say she’s probably one of the most approachable managers I’ve ever worked for,” said Joseph Esposito, director of specialized prosecutions, who worked under Lacey when she headed the district attorney’s central operations bureau. "… One thing I learned immediately is that it was absolutely OK to express my own opinion, even if it was contrary to hers.”
Detractors criticized Lacey as a bureaucrat overly beholden to Cooley. In a television ad, Jackson slammed her for conflicting testimony she had given in two union grievance hearings, saying she was “a political appointee who was dishonest under oath to protect her boss.” Lacey maintained that she had merely corrected her previous testimony, and called Jackson naive.
Lacey told the Times in an interview during her campaign, “I don’t foam at the mouth, I don’t walk around bragging. Running for office is really hard for me because I’m not used to marketing myself. But I am a determined individual. If I set my mind to something, I will work literally day and night until I am sick.”
Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, raised by blue collar parents — her father worked for the city’s lot cleaning division and her mother in a garment factory and later for the school district — who had migrated from the South. Despite beginning from “scratch,” as Lacey’s mother, Addie Phillips, put it, they saved enough to buy their house for $30,000 and enough to send Lacey to college.
She went on to law school at USC on a scholarship, and upon graduation, joined a small entertainment law firm.
“That sounds sexy,” she said. “It was the most boring job you could imagine.”
Unable to stomach the succession of monotonous depositions, she jumped to the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, where a friend from law school had landed. There she found that she enjoyed criminal law. She also discovered, she said, that “many of the victims are poor people, just like the people I said I wanted to help.”
After moving to the district attorney’s office, she eventually prosecuted hate crimes, including the case of a black homeless man in Lancaster who was beaten to death by three Nazi Lowriders.
Lacey worked under Cooley in the San Fernando courthouse and was the first person he appointed to management after his election as district attorney in 2000. Cooley appointed her as chief deputy district attorney in March 2011, shortly before announcing his own plans to retire and backing her run to replace him.
As district attorney-elect, Lacey will immediately be confronted by the hot button issue of prison realignment, which shifted responsibility for thousands of prisoners and parolees from the state to counties.
“That’s the overall biggest problem everyone has in the criminal justice system,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor. "…If she can just deal with realignment, she will be a huge success.”
Lacey acknowledged that realignment has not so far brought the “Armageddon” of spiking crimes rates that some predicted, but still called it a threat to public safety, citing the potential for jail overcrowding and concerns about the system’s ability to monitor released prisoners.
Lacey has said she wants to move quickly to expand the county’s alternative sentencing programs for veterans, female parolees and people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, although she is still working out the mechanics of how to do it. Offering alternative sentencing to more low-level offenders would ensure that the jails have room for more serious criminals and that courts, not sheriff’s officials, would decide how long offenders will spend in jail, she said.
At the same time, Lacey supports reclassifying some nonviolent offenders, including high-level drug dealers and some identity theft perpetrators, to make them eligible for state prison time.
She has also promised to expand prosecutions of identity theft and environmental crimes — the office currently has only one investigator dedicated to that role — and has pledged to continue to support the public integrity unit, a pet project of Cooley’s. That unit has prosecuted officials in Bell, Vernon and elsewhere on public corruption charges.
Lacey’s first move as district attorney, however, will be to appoint people to her leadership team. So far, she has declined to say whom she is considering.