LOS ANGELES (CN) — Two candidates vying to clinch Los Angeles County’s district attorney seat brandished their credentials as criminal justice reformers on the debate stage Thursday while blasting the incumbent’s record as reflective of fear-based policy-making.
The election for the leadership role at the largest county prosecutorial agency in the country pits LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey against two reform-minded candidates who say the incumbent’s policies have exacerbated harm in communities of color.
Former public defender Rachel Rossi and former San Francisco DA George Gascón took their seats alongside an empty chair for Lacey left onstage by debate cohosts National Council of Jewish Women LA.
When moderators asked how the DA could support people, particularly women, re-entering communities after leaving prison, Gascón said re-entry should begin six months before someone leaves prison, and that programs should be formed in part by people who’ve been incarcerated.
Rossi said women have often been left out of system reforms and that decarceration begins with DAs filing fewer felony charges and having officers reduce arrests of women for low-level offenses.
The candidates refrained from deriding Lacey for only attending one public debate in the race before the March 3 primary.
Lacey, a Democrat who was elected in 2012, declined an invitation to the debate, saying in a statement last week she will tentatively skip all debates due to activists disrupting her and preventing her from being heard.
At a January debate, members of an LA police accountability coalition repeatedly interrupted Lacey with loud chants and blasted her record while in office.
The debate was the first time Lacey publicly debated other candidates who want to remove her from the office she has held since 2012.
LA resident Joelle Dobrow said she hasn’t been following the race closely and Lacey’s absence deprived her of a full picture of the field.
“I have no way to compare her with other candidates,” Dobrow said.
Lacey, the first woman and first black person in her position, has touted her effort to divert people with mental illness from jail.
But Gascón said Lacey has fallen short of developing programs to divert people with mental illness from incarceration.
“People that are mentally ill do not do well in incarceration settings,” Gascón said. “We need to bring mental health professionals to the table.”
In prior responses to criticism she hasn’t criminally charged police officers who unlawfully kill or harm civilians, Lacey said the cases wouldn’t meet a high evidentiary standard in court.
Rossi told the audience the relationship between police and prosecutors is too close and that she would establish an independent body to prosecute police misconduct cases.
If an independent body couldn’t be set up within the county, Rossi said she would explore removing cases to federal prosecutors or the attorney general’s office.
Lacey made waves Thursday when she announced her office will toss 66,000 felony and misdemeanor marijuana convictions in LA County.
In a statement, Lacey said the move would benefit communities of color negatively impacted by decades of racial disparities in the criminal legal system.
Of those who will receive relief, 32% are black, 20% are white and 45% are Latino, according to Lacey’s office, which filed court papers this week seeking dismissal of cases stretching as far back as 1961.
Before weed was legalized in the Golden State, Lacey and other prosecutors opposed legalization and fomented enforcement practices where marijuana-related convictions hampered individuals’ access to jobs and housing.
The tossed convictions are eligible for removal from individuals’ records under Proposition 64, a voter-approved measure that also governs recreational pot use in California.
In a statement, Rossi said Lacey was years late in enacting the much-needed reform.
“A conveniently-timed press release right before an election does not absolve her failure to act,” Rossi said. “Further, LA County still prosecutes criminal misdemeanors on unlicensed businesses that are disproportionately run by people of color, and have not yet been included in the emerging industry.”
Gascón said Thursday that Lacey would have been required to make the move anyway by July 1 under Assembly Bill 1793, which requires fast-track removal of certain cannabis-related convictions without a court petition.
Candidates were asked whether they would push to eliminate CalGang, a statewide database of people named by officers as being suspected gang members.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced this week his office will investigate the LAPD’s use of CalGang following an LA Times report that officers wrongfully named someone as a gang member.
Gascón promised to abolish CalGang and said the database is based on info that was collected through racist means.
“If you put garbage into the system, you get garbage out,” Gascón said, adding that deleting the database would reduce unfair sentencing in cases where police tied defendants to gangs based on CalGang.
Rossi also promised to eliminate CalGang and said the “archaic” tool has driven high rates of incarcerated black and brown youth.
Both candidates said if elected they would not prosecute crimes related to being homeless, such as anti-camping laws that prevent people from sleeping on public sidewalks.
The issue of residents’ safety in the context of increasing homelessness in the county has elevated the challenge of balancing law enforcement with humanitarian policies.
“The job of the district attorney is to keep the community safe,” Rossi said in response to an audience question about property crimes. “But it’s important that we do not let fear drive policy.”
Gascon’s record is under fire from LA County police unions – particularly the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents 10,000 cops – who say his policies have led to increases in some forms of crime.
California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, threw her support behind Gascón on Tuesday, saying the former police officer will eradicate disparities in the criminal legal system, including by holding accountable officers who use excessive force against civilians.
“Los Angeles needs a 21st century system of justice, we need George Gascón,” Waters said in a statement.
The nod from Waters is a sign of Gascon’s momentum but could also signal a shift from the trend of state Democratic leaders lining up in support of Lacey.
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of California and a host of labor and police unions are backing Lacey in the race.
Lacey also said she declined to participate in Thursday’s forum due to a conflict of interest between Gascón and one of the debate organizers: the LA Coalition for District Attorney Justice and Accountability.
Lacey claims a member of the group also writes for The Appeal, a progressive criminal justice news publication which is partially funded by a major Gascón donor.
The group offered to step away from Thursday’s debate and said in a statement Lacey’s campaign never raised the issue with the coalition directly.
“To be clear, there is no conflict of interest with our coalition’s participation, and Lacey’s campaign did not raise any concerns with us, or with any of the other event co-hosts, before announcing that she was “forced” to withdraw from the debate,” the coalition statement said. “As a coalition we are explicitly nonpartisan and do not endorse any candidates or parties.”
Paula Minor, a volunteer member of Black Lives Matter LA, told Courthouse News police union support for Lacey’s campaign is a clearer example of conflict of interests in the day-to-day prosecutorial system.
Minor says BLM members attempted to engage Lacey at a Criminal Courts Bar Association of LA-hosted debate this week, mainly to ask why Lacey skips public debates but will attend private forums.
“She goes where she can control the environment,” Minor said. “She’s being selective, not avoiding debates.”
Minor, who didn’t attend the forum, said families of victims of police violence and grassroots groups are frustrated because Lacey has avoided them for years and doesn’t address their concerns during public appearances.
“She’s recommending death sentences and tough convictions and you can’t stand to have a grieving family member shout at you,” Minor said. “[Lacey] hasn’t kept up with the need for change in criminal justice.”