LOS ANGELES (CN) – Depending on who you ask, California’s voter-approved Proposition 47 either released criminals into communities by recategorizing nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors in 2014 or gave a second chance to lower-level offenders.
A month out from the election to choose the next Los Angeles district attorney, one of the architects of the law, candidate George Gascón, stood with the beneficiaries of that second chance on the steps of City Hall.
For Gascón, the former San Francisco DA and LAPD officer, rehabilitation is a centerpiece of his campaign to unseat incumbent Jackie Lacey.
“Let’s be honest with one another: the problem with homelessness and the problem of addiction and the problem with poverty has been present way before Proposition 47 and they’re continuing to be.,” said Gascón. “We’ve continued for the last 40 years to deny science and to deny development. We’re stuck in the 1980s.”
Gascón, 66, says Lacey’s office is out of step with demands for reform, a prosecutor from a bygone era where high conviction rates led to mass incarceration of black and Latino populations.
Lacey, 63, received praise this month when she expunged 66,000 low-level marijuana-related convictions. Lacey announced the action alongside Code for America, an organization that assisted in removing the convictions that hindered people from prospective jobs or housing for years.
But her critics point out Gascón expunged marijuana-related convictions last year as San Francisco DA.
Candidate Rachel Rossi, a former public defender, said Lacey “conveniently timed” her action just weeks before voters head to the polls.
During a debate last month alongside Rossi and Gascón, Lacey called herself the “only real lawyer” on the stage. Later she clarified she sees herself as the most experienced prosecutor in the race.
“With Mr. Gascón, he has never been a practicing lawyer and yet he feels like the LA DA’s office is a factory. That the CEO doesn’t know how to make the widgets and that’s insulting,” Lacey said in an interview. “And for people who think that the head of that office doesn’t need any trial experience they just don’t understand the role.”
At the candidate forum, Lacey’s accomplishments as the first black person and first woman elected as DA in LA County was lost in the roar of protesters who shouted her down.
Since taking office in 2012, Lacey’s office has only filed charges against one officer – voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a man during a traffic stop at a Norwalk gas station. So the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter holds weekly vigils outside Lacey’s office at the Hall of Justice to demand justice for the unarmed men and women killed by police.
Quintus Moore’s son Grechario Mack was shot and killed by LAPD officers in a crowded mall during a mental health crisis in 2018. Moore says Lacey’s decision not to pursue criminal charges in police shooting cases signals to officers they’re protected from prosecution when they act unlawfully on the job.
“[Lacey’s] not for the people, she’s for the establishment,” Moore said in an interview. “[Police unions] want to keep her in there to protect themselves.”
Moore said Mack’s death could have been prevented if police had sought medical aid or de-escalated the situation.
“Lacey’s not doing her job so she should get out the way and let someone else do it. She’s playing with people’s lives,” Moore said. “LA has become the killer-cop capital of the world. Her reign of terror has come to an end.”
In a phone interview, Lacey spoke generally about needed reforms. “I really think that change does need to happen. There do need to be better ways for law enforcement addressing, for instance, those in a mental health crisis,” she said.
She highlights de-escalation training and her push to form a mental health diversion route for mentally ill inmates as opposed to them going to jail. But a recent RAND report found that about 5,500 people in the LA County Jail mental health population and 61% overall were suitable candidates for diversion.
In response to the report’s findings Lacey asked, “Divert to what? That’s the big question.”
While officials are years away from converting a county hospital into a new treatment center, Lacey points out the county has 10.3 million people and that homelessness continues to grow.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union said during Lacey’s time in office, death penalty sentences have been handed to people of color only. The report highlighted racial disparities that critics say come from a prosecutor who continues to pursue death penalty convictions despite a statewide moratorium.
Lacey – who is black – says all the convictions were warranted in her view and race does not factor into the decision to pursue the death penalty. She noted an example of a case where prosecutors sought the death penalty for a black man who killed a black woman and her three daughters in what she describes as a “heinous murder” that was truly evil.
When asked if that case should convince people to support the death penalty, she acknowledges it won’t.
“I don’t expect to. With the death penalty it’s kind of like either people are for it or against it,” she said. “My goal is to humanize it. If you want to call me a racist, at least look at the evidence I’ve had that I had to look at. I’m going to give you back the facts.”
Enter the public defender
At a recent National Action Network breakfast event in south LA, Rossi told a group of mainly black Angelenos she approaches criminal justice from her experience defending clients in state and federal courts.
Rossi, 36, worked for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as counsel drafting the First Step Act, which aims to overhaul the federal prison system and assist low- and minimum-risk offenders.
“The ability to step out of this status quo and say you know what, I’m not going to accept this,” Rossi told the crowd. “We don’t have to accept the racial disparities in our system, the criminalization of mental health, criminalization of substance abuse. Our district attorney’s office needs to join that conversation.”
Like Gascón, Rossi announced her candidacy in front of a county jail and said that as DA she would bring in outside mental health experts to streamline diversion programs.
Rossi is candid in her lack of experience running an office like the DA, which oversees millions of residents over 4,700 square miles. Lacey has chided Rossi as a lawyer who does “not have the heart and soul” of a prosecutor and only recently became interested in the position.
“I have more experience than any candidate in this race, it’s just different experience,” Rossi said in an interview. “For Ms. Lacey to say that she has so much experience, well, if you have done 500,000 trials and those trials have led to the mass incarceration crisis we have today and to the racial disparities in the system, then I don’t want that experience.”
Lacey’s progressive challengers have brought the national effort to overhaul prosecutorial agencies to her office. But neither have the support of unions representing rank-and-file law enforcement officers who say Lacey – who ran unopposed in 2016 – is the only candidate who can run the office.
Ronald Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs union, describes Lacey as a “fair and open-minded” prosecutor. He has other thoughts about Gascón.
“Gascón’s ideas about the law are not thought out, it’s just an open the doors and let everybody do what they want approach to the law,” said Hernandez, a 25-year detective with the Sheriff’s Department and one of many in law enforcement who deride Proposition 47. “Gascón’s ideas frighten me.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a rising star in the Democratic Party, criticized Proposition 47 earlier this year, telling a Los Angeles Fox TV affiliate that the law created a “broken system” that leaves no consequences for low-level offenders.
But South LA resident Linda Gomez says she benefitted from Proposition 47 because she was tried as an adult when she was 17 and would have served a nearly 25-year sentence. Her assault with a deadly weapon conviction carried gang enhancements. Now she’s getting out the vote as part of a campaign to raise awareness.
“I know the importance of this race. When I think of the DA race, I think of that 17-year-old girl scared and not knowing what’s going on in court,” Gomez said in an interview.
Gascón says criminal justice has stalled in LA County and that he’s learned gang enhancements are a surefire way to destroy a young person’s life. The California Attorney General’s office announced this month that state prosecutors will independently review LAPD records on reports that officers falsely placed Angelenos’ names into a gang database without any evidence.
Gascón’s progressive approach in San Francisco riled law enforcement, and police unions have amassed an estimated $4 million to defeat his election bid, according to campaign finance records. On Thursday, after Gascón called on Lacey to lobby for resentencing of people on death row and stop pursuing the death penalty, the sheriff’s union issued a statement saying Gascón has “absolute contempt for victims of crime.
But labor groups and grassroots organizers have rallied around Gascón and raised considerable cash for his race.
Like Rossi, Gascón says he would not convict or cite homeless people for public urination and intends form a homeless advisory board to better understand the needs of the community.
“We have to bring humanity into the criminal justice system because community safety for all depends on hope and humanity,” said Gascón. “Through more smart and thoughtful policies, we can be in a better place.”