In 2012, Jackie Lacey defeated a traditional tough-on-crime prosecutor to become Los Angeles County district attorney. Voters seemed to appreciate her cautious openness to new thinking, and indeed some of her policies — especially her program to divert some mentally ill people from prosecution to treatment — were refreshingly forward-looking. She was reelected in 2016 without opposition.
In the intervening years, many voters here and elsewhere in California have moved further. They have embraced criminal justice reforms that call on law enforcement leaders and prosecutors to focus their resources on the most serious and dangerous crimes while recognizing the corrosive effect that excessive enforcement targeting more petty crimes has on communities already bearing the burden of racial bias. They have called on their leaders to reject fear-based prosecution and instead look to evidence: What policies promote public safety, justice, reduced recidivism and healthy communities?
Lacey’s caution, once comforting, now sometimes looks more like resistance to change.
She opposed Proposition 47, a landmark reform measure to convert simple possession of small amounts of drugs and some petty thefts from felonies to misdemeanors. When it passed, she was slow to embrace the changes it brought, and could not adequately report how the decrease in felony prosecutions affected her office’s budget and workload. She at first opposed any change to the money bail system that keeps poor people in jail before trial while freeing those who can buy their way out; and when she later became more open to bail reform, she used her considerable clout to block an early legislative version of a money-bail ban. She continues to support the death penalty, despite moral and practical overwhelming arguments against it. Although she merits respect for launching a mental health diversion program, its progress has been somewhat plodding.
Meanwhile, voters in dozens of other cities and counties around the nation have elected prosecutors who embrace a more vigorous approach to criminal justice reform. Those prosecutors have rejected a system largely based on an unforgiving war on drugs, and a prosecutorial system that too often looks for every possible reason to imprison offenders for the longest possible sentences. They acknowledge the role of poverty in sending people to jail, for example for their inability to pay criminal fines and fees, and they recognize the role a prosecutor can have in ameliorating racial disparity in the criminal justice system. They are adept at gathering and analyzing data, in order to ensure that their polices keep their communities safe by reducing recidivism. Skeptics sometimes argue that progressive prosecutors may be more concerned about the mistreatment of defendants and convicts than with the pursuit of public safety. But for the most part this movement has focused on smart reforms that will help make criminal justice more effective and less costly, and making people safer while making the system fairer.
George Gascón, a former Los Angeles police officer and assistant chief who later became police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and San Francisco, and then San Francisco district attorney, is one of those more progressive prosecutors. He co-wrote Proposition 47, essentially eliminated money bail in his jurisdiction, and authored legislation and instituted policies aimed at reducing the outsize role of poverty and race in criminal justice. He is one of two candidates challenging Lacey.
Los Angeles County is the nation’s largest prosecutorial jurisdiction and its district attorney should be a leader and a trendsetter in the administration of justice. Gascón could be that leader. He’s the better choice than Lacey.
Gascón is an innovative thinker and experienced administrator who is adept at using data to craft policy and monitor progress. He is an advocate for effective reform in a way that Lacey is not.
It is a fact that unlike Lacey he is not an experienced trial attorney, and he will have to earn the respect of the office’s veteran prosecutors. But the district attorney’s role is to set the office’s course, not to argue before a jury. He is up to the job.
Also running is former federal Los Angeles County deputy public defender Rachel Rossi, who tacks a bit to Gascón’s left. She is adept at articulating problems that tend to undermine respect for the justice system, particularly racial bias and economic inequity. But she is not ready to lead the D.A.’s office.
Much of the invective hurled by criminal-justice reform activists against Lacey — and there is a lot — is off-base. She is not a retrograde, old-style, tough-on-crime prosecutor, nor is she in league with police unions to protect officers from prosecution for excessive use of force.
But neither is she the energetic innovator and leader that L.A. County needs. It is time to thank her for her service and opt for Gascón.