The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is the nation’s largest local prosecutorial agency by far. Its caseload, together with L.A.’s position as a capital of innovation and a breeding ground for political movements, put the L.A. D.A.’s office in a position to influence justice policy not just here but throughout California and, arguably, around the nation. Practices established in L.A. may well set the course for dealing with homelessness, mental health care, policing and public safety everywhere.
So there is a strong case to be made that aside from the presidential race, the most important item before voters in 2020 will be the race for L.A. County D.A.
Jackie Lacey was first elected to the post in 2012, and she eased into a second term four years later without much notice or even an opponent. This time it’s different.
Two of her deputies are challenging her: veteran prosecutor Richard Ceballos and former defense lawyer and teacher Joseph Iniguez. So, most likely, is George Gascon, a former Los Angeles police officer and San Francisco police chief, who recently resigned his post as San Francisco district attorney and moved to Los Angeles.
Drawing a contrast with the more conservative incumbent, the challengers frame themselves as part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors who exercise their discretion not simply to convict and lock up criminals, but to steer the accused away from the criminal justice system when appropriate and into mental health or drug treatment, counseling and other alternatives to incarceration. Prosecutors who align themselves with that movement are guided by a set of principles that include fairer plea bargaining, greater attention to racial disparities and more accountability for police misconduct.
Around the country, a number of these new progressive prosecutors were elected on Nov. 8, 2016, in a startling counterpoint to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. But on that day, Lacey was reelected without debate in L.A. A follow-up wave of progressive candidates ran in California in 2018, but voters stuck with the incumbents. Those results illustrated a point that sometimes baffles observers in other parts of the nation: California, for all its blue-state politics and leftward reputation, has a serious case of mixed feelings when it comes to public safety, crime and justice.
The Los Angeles Times editorial page endorsed Lacey in 2012. We liked her cautious openness to new ideas and, besides, she was an easy choice over her old-school, tough-on-crime general election opponent. We were impressed with her decision to press for mental health diversion (directing accused people to treatment instead of jail) at a time when other county leaders seemed unable to grasp the issue. We were disappointed in 2016, the year of that progressive prosecutor wave elsewhere in the country, that no one ran against her — but we endorsed her again, even though we didn’t need to, because of her efforts on mental health.
But we have no problem asking Lacey what she’s done for us lately. We’re interested in hearing about the cops she has not prosecuted for excessive force and the criminal justice reforms she has not supported, among other things.
Gascon, meanwhile, has not just supported but has written or initiated many important reforms. But we need to hear him explain how his San Francisco experience will play in the much larger and more conservative Los Angeles D.A.'s office.
From Ceballos, we need to hear how he intends to chart a course that’s better for justice than either Lacey’s or Gascon’s. And from Iniguez we need to hear whether the supposed benefits of electing a young and relatively untried prosecutor are worth the risks.
The Times editorial page has been a strong supporter of many criminal justice reforms, but that support is not automatic and comes only after solid argument, evidence and analysis of costs and benefits. The same applies to the candidates. We need to hear from them where they would draw the line between responsible and gratuitous proposals to fix the criminal justice system.
We need to hear these things because voters need to hear them. The Times editorial page intends to delve deeply into the district attorney’s race because it is the essential contest in the administration of criminal justice in Los Angeles County, in California and in the nation.