Amid the presidential election, the ballot measures and the newfangled top-two runoff system for congressional and state legislative seats, Los Angeles County voters should not forget that they are also being asked this election season to pick a new district attorney. Their choice will do much to determine the future of public safety and criminal justice not just in this county — the nation’s most populous — but throughout California. It’s a crucial time here, as a historic decline in crime intersects with dangerously overcrowded prisons, tightly strapped state and county budgets and the far-reaching program known as realignment, which shifts responsibility for many felons from the state to counties.
Much is at stake. Los Angeles County needs a district attorney whose response to realignment goes beyond mere resignation or rejection; someone who acknowledges that the transfer of inmate supervision to the county has begun and will continue; someone who can work with the sheriff, the chief probation officer, the defense bar, the Board of Supervisors and Sacramento to make it work. The county needs someone who can find in realignment the potential to stop the revolving door of failure that shuttles so many Californians into and out of prison and jail, and right back in again, with no change in behavior and with ever-increasing costs to taxpayers.
Yet it needs someone as well who is not so overcome with enthusiasm for the program’s potential as to become blind to possible pitfalls that would allow dangerous people — whether they are the accused or the convicted, the probationer or the parolee — to threaten our neighborhoods.
The next district attorney must be a creative thinker, a cautious manager, a proven leader. He or she must be someone more interested in evenhanded justice than in the lure of the spotlight. Someone who can motivate top managers and 1,000 rank-and-file lawyers to get their best work. Someone adept at mastering the subtleties and nuances of office politics, budgeting and interagency wrangling.
Jackie Lacey is the best choice for the job.
Lacey began her legal career in the trenches, where she prosecuted everything from quality-of-life misdemeanors to murder, rising over the years to her current job as chief deputy district attorney in Steve Cooley’s administration. Management and policymaking in a huge governmental organization are nothing new to her.
Her message is steady and consistent: public safety, fair play, justice. She makes the same case using the same words and the same tone to rooms full of police officers and criminal prosecutors as she does, for example, to an audience of activists in a South Los Angeles church.
It’s a message that should be reassuring to those voters whose primary focus is, quite properly, sustaining the two-decade-long drop in crime in Los Angeles County. If Lacey’s tenure is a continuation of Cooley’s, with finely crafted prosecutorial policies and little drama, that’s a good thing.
Those residents who believe their families have been needlessly torn apart by unequal prosecution or unjustly harsh sentences may be taken aback by Lacey’s innate conservatism, her focus on keeping juveniles in school, her dim view of drug legalization, her support for the death penalty, her disinclination to reform the bail system, her emphasis on safety and security, her faith in law enforcement and the judiciary. But they seem to sense in Lacey someone who will listen and, if the case is made and the situation warrants it, someone who will adjust her office’s policies to be certain that justice is done. “There’s an opening there,” an activist said after Lacey addressed a crowd at the Bethel A.M.E. Church of Los Angeles. That’s also a good thing.
Prosecutor Alan Jackson, by contrast, demonstrates when he speaks to different audiences the qualities that make him such a winning presence in front of a jury. Without jettisoning the truth, Jackson reads his audience and seems instinctively to know what it needs and how it will respond to him. It is a useful trait in a prosecutor and an enticing quality in front of a camera. But it can leave a voter wondering just how Jackson would approach his job as district attorney: Hard line or flexible? Status quo or reformer? High profile or low?
Jackson, an accomplished prosecutor, lacks Lacey’s management skills and experience. He has a more combative temperament, a good attribute in a courtroom but less appropriate for the top job in the office.
Lacey has championed specialty courts for drug addicts, the mentally ill, veterans, mothers, the homeless and others accused of crimes that are inextricably linked to their particular conditions. These courts and the alternative sentencing they mete out can make the difference between a costly revolving jail door and a productive return of formerly troubled inmates to their families and communities. Los Angeles needs more of these courts, and with the court system at least as strapped for cash as other government institutions, it will need the understanding and advocacy — and perhaps a little push — from a top prosecutor who understands the value of alternative sentencing.
She also has pressed hard for tough prison sentences for certain serious offenders who, under realignment, might be counting on a free pass away from prison because their crimes did not involve violence, such as identity thieves and other cyber criminals. She has the awareness and the political skill to press Sacramento to fix what she considers similar glitches in the law.
Most of all, Lacey approaches the job with an attitude that is almost parental yet never patronizing. “As district attorney,” she told an audience recently, “I think it’s my job to make people safe.” It’s the right approach. She’s the right candidate for district attorney.