L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is the first woman and first African-American to ever hold that position. She was elected to the post in 2012, after spending most of her professional life in the D.A.’s office. Four years later, she was re-elected without opposition.
This time around the story is different, as Lacey faces a tough fight in her bid for a third term. Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has entered the race, as has former federal public defender Rachel Rossi. At stake in the March 3 election is oversight of the largest local prosecutorial office in the country.
The Courier asked D.A. Lacey about her tough on crime stance, criminal reform, the growing homeless problem in the county and other issues that will help readers make an informed decision in the election.
BHC: As the District Attorney of a county as diverse as Los Angeles, what specific arguments can you make to our readers for a third term?
Lacey: I have served as District Attorney of Los Angeles County for the last seven years. I have successfully led the largest local prosecutors’ office in the nation through a period of sweeping criminal justice reform changes. I have implemented change in a thoughtful manner so as to give people the relief they are entitled under the new laws without having it negatively impact public safety. We continue to see crime rates fall.
I am seeking a third term because I am in the midst of leading an effective effort to address homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness in our community and I am uniquely qualified and prepared to continue that effort. I am also the only candidate in this race who has a demonstrated record of success and the leadership skills to address the most pressing issues in our communities.
What are the accomplishments you’re proudest of in your first two terms as D.A.? What are your biggest regrets?
My accomplishments are as follows: Leadership in the field of mental health, establishing the sex abuse task-force, expanding a database to help track suspected child abuse, creation of a complex child abuse unit, a human trafficking unit, a conviction review unit, a notario fraud unit, and a program to remove guns from defendants charged with domestic violence. I also implemented a successful crime prevention program to warn seniors about the multitude of financial scams in our community. While I do not have any “big regrets” I frequently review our work and think about ways we can improve our service to Los Angeles County residents.
What goals are you setting for your third term, if you are re-elected?
My goals are to continue to work with the County Board of Supervisors and other elected officials to create housing to divert people with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. I also want to continue to address the epidemic of fentanyl and methamphetamine overdoses. I want to advocate for stronger regulation for the black market marijuana industry and continue to discourage gang-related crime. Also, I will work to divert more juveniles out of the delinquency system.
Violent crime touches every part of L.A. County. Here in Beverly Hills, we’ve had some high profile criminal incidents recently. What can you tell our residents about your record that will reassure them?
Addressing violent crime and serious crime is my top priority. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office works closely with law enforcement officers to apprehend, prosecute, and seek punishment for those who prey on members of our community. Approximately 12 percent of the cases submitted to our office are classified as serious or violent crimes. Crime rates continue to be at their lowest rate in decades. Our office files more than 70 percent of the cases submitted to our office.
You’ve come under criticism by groups such as Black Lives Matter and the ACLU for not being tough on a particular type of crime, namely criminal actions by law enforcement. Critics say you’re hesitant to file charges, placing too much importance on key endorsements by powerful law enforcement associations. Please respond to this criticism.
If a peace officer’s conduct rises to the level of a provable crime, my office will file criminal charges. In accordance with legal ethics and office policy, prosecutors may file criminal charges when they have determined that the admissible evidence will prove the suspect’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.
My office’s Justice System Integrity Unit charged over 100 police officers for crimes committed while on-duty and off-duty. The charges include manslaughter, excessive force, rape, obstruction of justice, child pornography and workers’ compensation fraud. No one is above the law including peace officers.
You’ve brought criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein in connection with alleged actions that took place in Beverly Hills. Can you give any insights on how your office Task Force worked in tandem with the BHPD? Is there a chance that additional charges will be filed, as this investigation is apparently still ongoing?
The case is pending and the investigation is ongoing. I would refer you to the official statement issued by our office.
Your main opponent, George Gascon, left his position as San Francisco D.A. to run against you. He’s been endorsed by the County Democratic Party. Many say he’s more in line with the ethos of L.A., in terms of mass incarceration, ending cash bail, the felony murder rule and the death penalty. What do you say of criticism that you aren’t progressive enough for the county you represent?
The former San Francisco District Attorney ethos was not in line with San Francisco. In Los Angeles County, public safety is a top issue for our residents. I am endorsed by a large contingent of Democrats that include U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein as well as the Stonewall Young Democrats. Additionally, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles County Firefighters endorse me.
I have supported progressive efforts such as the law that moderated three-strikes in 2012 and I have been a strong advocate for bail reform. I was the first prosecutor in the state to advocate for diverting those diagnosed with mental illness out of our jails and prisons. I was the only prosecutor in the state to support Senate Bill 10 that enacted bail reform. Also, I was the first county department head to mandate unconscious bias training for my prosecutors.
In 2013 I created a conviction review unit in the District Attorney’s Office. The former San Francisco District Attorney did not have a unit in his office. The former San Francisco District Attorney has not been a vocal statewide advocate for treatment for those living with a mental health issue, nor did he help SB 10 get passed. I have continuously worked in Los Angeles County for more than 30 years. The majority of Los Angeles County residents support reform but they do not want radical policies implemented that put their safety at risk. I will continue to search for opportunities to improve our District Attorney’s office while prioritizing public safety.
What are the major points of distinction between you and Mr. Gascon? Why do you think your positions and experience make you a better choice for our readers than Gascon?
The former District Attorney of San Francisco has no litigation experience. Most of his career was spent arresting people while serving as a police officer.
I have been a prosecutor for more than 30 years. I have tried nearly 100 cases. This hands-on experience helps me lead the District Attorney’s office with a deeper knowledge and understanding of what the attorney’s on my team face. I believe in implementing reforms but I am not supportive of changes that destroy our quality of life and fail to punish bad actors that repeatedly commit crimes.
My opponent authored Proposition 47 that reduced penalties for drug and theft crimes. However, after its passage, Gascon failed to ensure that people in our state would get the help needed to overcome their addictions. He also failed to address the organized theft rings that benefited from the passage of this new law. The former San Francisco District Attorney watched property crimes soar in his city and blamed the police. He failed to take a leadership role in addressing this issue and essentially quit doing his job and prematurely quit his position. He is currently proposing reforms that he did not even implement while in San Francisco.
Homelessness and lack of mental health services are crushing problems all over L.A. County. Tell us about the Criminal Justice Mental Health Project that you pioneered in the county.
In Los Angeles County, mentally ill offenders may be incarcerated in the county jail for significant periods of time. The jail environment is not conducive to the treatment of mental illness, but by providing appropriate mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and job readiness training, as well as permanent supportive housing when it is needed, the mentally ill are stabilized and less likely to commit future offenses. Jail should not be used to house people whose behavior arose out of an acute mental health crisis. As prosecutors our role is to protect our community through the fair and ethical pursuit of justice for criminal behavior that occurs in our jurisdiction. We also safeguard the rights of victims.
As District Attorney, I also want to make sure that jails and prisons are reserved for the most serious and violent offenders. Regarding successes in this area, in 2013, I formed what would become the county’s Mental Health Advisory Board with mental health and criminal justice professionals. I published the “Blueprint for Change,” a 2015 report that mapped out a path to address issues within the mental health and justice systems. Later, my office went on to provide training to more than 1,400 first responders from smaller police agencies based on recommendations from the “Blueprint for Change.” The training showed first responders how to safely de-escalate encounters with people in a mental health crisis, improving the safety of the officers and the public. In 2016, I also appointed the nation’s first mental health liaison for a local prosecutorial agency. The liaison worked in collaboration with a variety of stakeholders to address ways to safely help people in a mental health crisis stay out of the criminal justice system. In January of last year, I established a Mental Health Division in my office that brings together deputy district attorneys whose cases involve defendants who have been declared incompetent to stand trial or are seeking alternative sentences due to their mental illness.
What do you consider the biggest challenge facing the L.A. District Attorney’s office in the next decade?
The biggest immediate challenge is implementing Bail Reform. While SB10 is on hold due to a referendum, there is a plan to implement bail reform in Los Angeles County. The key will be finding the right alternatives to cash bail. The L.A. County District Attorney’s Office has been working with the Superior Court and other stakeholders to launch this project.
Long range, the biggest concern amongst residents is the homelessness crisis. The criminal justice system plays an important role, as most of the people leaving jail do not have a means to support themselves. Re-entry services must be increased to ensure that those who need a job and a place to live have the support they need to rebuild their lives. As District Attorney, our work on mental health inspired the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to set aside $120 million to create the Office of Diversion and Re-entry. As a major stakeholder, I intend to continue my support for their re-entry initiatives.
The Courier will run a feature on D.A. Candidate George Gascon in its Feb. 7 issue.