D.A. candidate Jackie Lacey looks to move up

In an office of 1,000 trial lawyers, many of whom can be temperamental and self-centered, Jackie Lacey looks and acts like the adult in the room. It’s her best asset as a candidate. Is it also her worst liability?

Lacey, 55, is the chief deputy to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, and her task in the campaign to succeed him is to demonstrate that she has an agenda, a style and a mind of her own. Like Cooley, though, she has a low-key personality. She exhibits a certain gravitas — but also a lack, on first glance, of passion. She finds herself patiently reiterating that, yes, she really does want the top job and really is prepared to put her own stamp on it. That could make her a better district attorney than one of her more hard-charging trial-lawyer opponents such as Alan Jackson, Bobby Grace and Danette Meyers or the best-known contender, Carmen Trutanich. But it also makes it more difficult for her to stand out as a candidate.

“The skill set you take into the courtroom to convict a serial killer isn’t going to work at the management level,” Lacey said. “And many people don’t understand. They crash and burn. They come in kicking down doors. A leader is making different decisions.”

VIDEO: D.A. candidates discuss their positions on realignment and the death penalty

Los Angeles County has had experience with district attorneys who were at first embraced by the public but later crashed and burned. Ira Reiner moved through offices quickly, first as Los Angeles city controller, then as city attorney, then in the 1980s as district attorney. He had a talent for knowing the public’s emotional state, and responding to it — sometimes with fiery statements about locking up gang members or prosecuting politicians. But by the time he ran for attorney general, the public had grown weary of him and blamed him for the McMartin preschool fiasco. He was seeking reelection as district attorney in 1992 when the four police officers accused in the Rodney King beating were acquitted and the city erupted. He came in second in his June primary, then dropped out without facing the general election.

Gil Garcetti was media savvy but his image suffered after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson and the squabbling between him and Police Chief Bernard Parks during the Rampart police scandal. He lost his reelection effort to Cooley in 2000.

Cooley demonstrated a rare ability to keep a low profile without looking like he was hiding. But it’s not clear whether that style will work for someone else, especially now that California faces a sweeping revamp of the way it delivers and administers criminal justice. Under the policy change known as realignment, counties must take on the task of incarcerating and supervising many felons who formerly went to state prison. The next district attorney of Los Angeles County will play a lead role in developing and articulating policies that will determine whether smart, cost-effective alternative sentencing practices lead to rehabilitation — or instead to dangerous criminals being released, unsupervised, into the community. The job will require someone who can be an outspoken public advocate without becoming a media hound; a calm and reassuring presence without being a shrinking violet.

Lacey is one of six candidates being considered by the Times editorial board for an endorsement. This blog post and others like it are part of our process of thinking through the decision.

Lacey grew up in the Crenshaw district and attended Dorsey High School, the daughter of African American transplants from Georgia and Texas. Her parents made clear that church and education were not optional. She was the first member of her family to go to college — a distinction she shares with a majority of this year’s D.A. candidates. After graduating from UC Irvine, she got a scholarship to USC law school and from there went to the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, where she tried misdemeanor cases. After a year she went to the district attorney’s office and prosecuted nuisance crimes for cities under contract with the D.A. Then more serious crimes. She tried about 60 felony jury trials, including 11 murder cases. She sent one person to death row.

One of her most memorable cases came when she was assigned to Lancaster in the mid-1990s. People she described as neo-Nazis decided to murder a minority, saw a homeless African American man at a McDonald’s, followed him to a vacant lot and beat him to death. They celebrated by getting tattoos.

Lacey prosecuted three simultaneous cases in front of three different juries and secured the convictions. It would be a big deal for any prosecutor, but was especially so for the daughter of African Americans who left the South decades ago for a better life in California.

“Here we are in the 1990s,” she said, “in Southern California, and you have a racist group that has decided to murder people much the way they did in the South and got away with it in the ’50s. The verdict was about this: We are not going back there. Justice will be served. It was a message to anyone else out there who would even think of engaging in this behavior — that we’re just not going back there.”

It was Los Angeles County’s first hate-crime conviction.

Before that, she met “a rumpled guy with a beard” — Steve Cooley. They bonded. She said he gave her opportunity that no other boss had given her. She campaigned for him against Garcetti, and after the election she was approached on the commuter train by a friend and congratulated. For what? She was told that Cooley had appeared on television the night before and said that he was making Lacey his director of central operations. When she got to work, he was on the phone. “I meant to tell you something,” she remembered him saying. “I was going to discuss it with you first. But they kept pressuring me to say who my staff was going to be.”

Central operations works like a factory, with one section filing complaints, another doing preliminary hearings, another handling arraignments and another taking cases to trial. Parking in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles is terrible. The elevators are worse. The juries are tough. The working conditions are difficult and when she got there, Lacey said, morale was low. She set out to improve conditions with better communications, clearer guidelines and better training. Morale improved. The conviction rate rose.

Her secrets? One of them was food. They fed each other breakfast, and when it was Lacey’s turn she put on her apron and cooked.

“People constantly underestimate the power of food,” she said. “I care about my people and I show them, ‘I’m going to love on you with bacon and eggs.’ ”

Another secret: motherhood.

“I had never supervised anyone in my life other than my children,” she said. “A lot of principles I used with my kids I used on my lawyers.” Like imposing discipline without demoralizing. Setting the bar high. And serving breakfast.

Later, Cooley made her his assistant D.A. in charge of line operations. She ran much of the office and took part in the major decisions — whether to seek a death sentence, how to trim the budget, how to marshal resources, whom to promote and whom to discipline.

Last year, after she filed to run to succeed Cooley, he made her his chief deputy. To some of her opponents, that’s evidence that Cooley is was simply trying to select his own successor by giving her a better ballot title.

But Lacey noted that she differs from Cooley in many policy areas. She wants to reinvigorate the environmental crimes unit, which her boss de-emphasized. She worked to help get alternative sentencing courts — veterans’ court, women’s court, along with the already existing drug court and mental health court. But for all those court descriptions there is really only one of them, handled by one judge. Lacey wants more.

On realignment, she is not so different from Cooley in that she labels the change a disaster, but unlike Cooley she says we’re stuck with it and should take the opportunity to reinvent the criminal justice system.

The issue is the “r” words, beginning not with realignment but with recidivism. State prisons became overcrowded in part because inmates on release had a 70% likelihood of coming back within the first 18 months due to a parole violation or a new crime. The figure is often misused, and the statistics on technical violations and new convictions are often conflated, but any way they are looked at the numbers are not good.

That brings in the other “r” words: restorative justice, rehabilitation, redemption. They are big, currently, in the criminal justice field. California must figure out whether they are a passing fancy or a new way of going about the criminal justice business. Los Angeles County voters must decide whether they want a district attorney who embraces the concepts — and whether they trust that person to implement new policies based on them — rather than on simply locking up the criminals and dealing with them again when there jail terms are up.

“We are going through a sea change right before our eyes, and very quickly” she said. “I am the best equipped to lead that office through some incredibly dynamic challenges. You want to have an adult in that office. Someone who is sane. Someone who is not out to get headlines. I don’t think the other candidates even know or understand the responsibility of running that office.”


Political corruption and the district attorney

Alan Jackson, winner with jurors, makes case to voters

Prosecutor Bobby Grace makes his play for L.A. district attorney