The Beverly Hills Bar Association (BHBA) held a remote debate on Oct. 7 for the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney between incumbent Jackie Lacey and her challenger, former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon. The winner of the Nov. 3 election will lead the largest prosecutorial office in the country at a time when the country’s carceral system has come under intense scrutiny.
The hour and a half-long debate, moderated by UCLA School of Law Professor Beth Colgen saw the two prosecutors wade into questions of how to balance equity with public safety. The event contained far fewer pointed remarks or jabs than their Oct. 4 debate, but the candidates nonetheless sketched a contrast in their prosecutorial philosophies. Lacey, once considered a moderately progressive prosecutor, has now defined herself as the law-and-order candidate. Gascon, in contrast, has seized the mantle of progressive upstart.
Gascon compared the job to that of a medical doctor who swears the Hippocratic Oath “to do no harm.”
“You have to look at the actions that you’re taking and look further down the line and see the ripple impact of your actions,” he said. Then, in his closing arguments, he told viewers: “[W]e can begin to look at a 21st century model of law that would look at how we build as opposed to break, how do we rehabilitate as opposed to punish, how do we bring redemption to our system, how do we redefine the term criminal justice.”
“Our mission statement is that we pursue justice in a fair and ethical manner, but that we also safeguard crime victims’ rights,” Lacey said. “It’s important, you can implement reforms, but if you forget about the abused woman, if you forget about that child who’s molested, if you forget about the family that’s mourning the death of their loved ones, then you really do a disservice and you encourage people to continue to victimize our community.”
Lacey has served as District Attorney since 2012, when she became the first African American and the first woman in the role. Lacey has found herself increasingly embattled since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Already, activists with Black Lives Matter-L.A. had been gathering outside of Lacey’s office in the downtown Hall of Justice each week, where the family members of victims of police shootings would speak. After protests erupted nationally, though, their numbers swelled from dozens to thousands. Activists have pointed to Lacey’s failure to prosecute officers in shootings of civilians over her seven-year tenure.
Ironically, the self-styled progressive reformer has a long background in law enforcement. Gascon, an immigrant from Cuba who served in the United States Army, became an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department early in his career. He later served as Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona, and by 2009, in San Francisco. He became the San Francisco D.A. in 2011.
The moderator asked the candidates for their positions on qualified immunity, the protection granted to law enforcement officers from liability in civil rights lawsuits, including in cases of deadly and excessive force. Both voiced support for reform, but qualified that support in different ways.
Gascon said that qualified immunity was primarily a federal issue, “however, I believe that state law can definitely provide relief.” He suggested creating new rights for citizens, “as opposed to taking away rights from police.” Lacey also indicated support but specified that she believed in only limiting qualified immunity in cases of “intentional acts or egregious acts, as opposed to mistakes.”
When asked about budget cuts to law enforcement and other associated agencies, Gascon expressed a belief that too much money had gone into policing at the expense of other social services.
“We have to admit that [in] the last three or four decades, we have consistently grown the expenditures of our public safety budget and we have done so at the expense of public health, education, social services, and even simple services like fixing potholes,” he said. “We have gotten addicted to using the criminal justice system as a solution for every social ill, including mental health, substance abuse, and many other problems.”
Lacey countered that this set up a false dichotomy. “I feel like the conversation is misdirected. It’s not, take money away from the police and move it to social services, it’s, can we get more money to social services.”
Colgen asked the candidates to weigh in on multiple items that will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot along with them. For instance, Proposition 17, which would grant felons the right to vote after they had served their prison sentence but while on parole.
Gascon came out in favor of full re-enfranchisement. “Not only would I support re-enfranchising all people that had been convicted of a crime, but I think that we should actually get to the point where you do not lose your right to vote regardless if you are in custody or not,” he said.
Lacey held that certain crimes like murder and rape, should warrant the loss of voting rights. “With regard to when you commit certain crimes, certain felonies, you should lose certain rights,” she said.
The two prosecutors found more common ground around Proposition 25, which would eliminate cash bail and replace it with predictive algorithms that would determine a suspect’s risk level. Here, both supported Prop 25 and acknowledged the need to monitor the algorithm software for racial bias.
While both candidates spoke on the importance of ending mass incarceration, Colgen pointed to empirical evidence that ending mass incarceration would require changing sentencing laws for even violent offences. Would the candidates support reduced sentencing for violent offences, Colgen asked.
“The utility of extreme lengthy sentences does not provide any more safety for our community,” Gascon answered. “In the early ’70s, we incarcerated a rate similar to other industrialized nations in the world. By the year 2000, we had completely thrown the system out of kilter and the answer to your questions is there will be many ways that I will look to reduce the impacts of enhancements on our sentencing schemes.”
Lacey struck a more conservative stance on the matter. “When you hurt someone, I’ve got to think about the victims and I’ve got to think about the safety of the community,” she said.
In closing arguments, Gascon illustrated just how much the race has changed from even the beginning of the year, listing off the bevy of endorsements he has accumulated: the Los Angeles Times editorial board, the California Democratic Party, Senator Kamala Harris, Governor Gavin Newsom. He also included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who rescinded his endorsement of Lacey and extended it to Gascon on Oct. 4.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-33rd), whose district includes Beverly Hills, rescinded his endorsement for Lacey in July.
“I endorsed Jackie Lacey prior to knowing George Gascon was entering the race. I now withdraw my endorsement of Jackie Lacey,” Lieu wrote in a Tweet. “The voters will make a decision in November as to who they want as their district attorney.”
Lacey, a Democrat, enjoys considerable support from law enforcement groups.
“I want to make sure that if we implement reforms, that we don’t see our community deteriorate,” she said. “I don’t want businesses to leave, I don’t want people to be afraid to leave their cars outside. I don’t want any of that. I want that same safety that you have in Beverly Hills, in the Compton neighborhood and Watts.”