Op-Ed: Criminal justice reform is sweeping the country. But not L.A. County
In California and across the country, voters of all stripes are asking elected leaders to focus on crime prevention and treatment and stop overcrowding prisons with poor, vulnerable people who pose little safety threat to our communities. At the forefront of this fight are locally elected prosecutors who have the power to implement critical criminal justice reforms.
In Los Angeles County, voters heartily supported measures to decriminalize marijuana, reduce draconian sentences for low-level offenses such as shoplifting, and increase parole opportunities for people who commit certain nonviolent offenses. These are common-sense policies that make the justice system more fair and humane, while keeping Californians safe.
With such widespread support, it’s disheartening that Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, hasn’t embraced some criminal justice reforms.Take the incarceration rate of Los Angeles County. We have about 618 people in prison per 100,000 residents, which is significantly higher than California’s overall rate of 496 per 100,000 residents and more than four times higher than San Francisco’s rate. Black residents are incarcerated at four times the rate of white residents.
It’s disheartening that Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, hasn’t embraced some criminal justice reforms.
Yet Lacey has opposed key reforms, such as ending cash bail, that could bring that rate down. Criminal justice is supposed to be about safety, not wealth. But that’s not how our bail system operates. Wealthy people can raise bail for their loved ones; poor people often can’t.
This often means that a person who is wealthy and charged with a serious offense can purchase his or her freedom while people who struggle to make ends meet are locked in jail on comparatively minor charges. Elected prosecutors in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis have recently implemented or supported bail reform in their offices. In San Francisco, Dist. Atty. George Gascón called cash bail “inherently unfair and archaic.”
Another issue on which Lacey has fallen short is addressing violence by police. In communities nationwide, reform-minded district attorneys are appointing independent prosecutors within their offices to investigate police shootings, which disproportionately affect people of color. An impartial investigation helps ensure justice is served and police are held accountable. Lacey has not taken this route. Moreover, the D.A.’s office has repeatedly declined to charge police officers in fatal shootings of unarmed black people, including in one case in which then-Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck said the officer should be criminally prosecuted.
Lacey has been out of step with voters in the county on other key criminal justice measures as well. She opposed Proposition 57 (supported by 67% of L.A. voters), which increased parole chances for certain people convicted of nonviolent crimes who posed no ongoing threat to their communities. She also opposed Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, again placing her out of step with the 59.5% of Los Angeles voters who supported the measure.
Though Los Angeles voters twice voted to replace the death penalty with life-without-parole sentences, the D.A.’s office, according to data aggregated from annual reports from the Death Penalty Information Center, has sent more people to death row over the last five years than any other prosecutor’s office in the U.S., except Republican Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin in Riverside County, and more than the states of Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia combined.
That’s why Mayor Eric Garcetti’s endorsement of Lacey this month for a new term as the county’s top cop was so surprising. Garcetti called Lacey a “proven leader” who “always puts the mission of advancing justice for all above everything else.” Lacey still has a long way to go to earn such praise from our mayor.
As the city, state and nation seek wholesale change in our criminal justice system, it’s crucial that locally elected prosecutors reflect the will of the people they serve and are working to enact pragmatic reforms. We expect more from Lacey and from all of L.A.’s leaders.
There is finally widespread support across the political spectrum for changing the criminal-justice system in meaningful ways. Now we just need key public officials, including Lacey, to get on board.
Patrisse Cullors is co-founder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now and chair of Reform L.A. Jails.
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