LOS ANGELES (CN) – Candidates vying to be Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor promised Friday to cease death penalty convictions, bolster police accountability and rollback policies embraced by incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who skipped the campaign debate.
The March 2020 primary election for the leadership role at the largest prosecutorial agency in the country has been framed by social movements as a referendum on Lacey’s record in office.
Lacey, the first woman and the first black person to serve as LA County DA, has come under fire from LA activists for refusing to bring criminal charges against police officers who killed civilians in the line of duty and being slow to adopt more progressive reforms.
Lacey, a Democrat who was elected in 2012, declined an invitation to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s campaign debate.
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said on the debate stage that he would work to rid the DA’s office – and the state – of sentencing enhancements that may unfairly increase penalties for certain low-level convictions.
“We need to review the entire California enhancement process,” Gascón told hundreds of people gathered at the California African American Museum. “These sentencing schemes are what drive mass incarceration.”
Born in Havana, Cuba, the former assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department told the mother of a man who died in LA County Sheriffs’ custody that he will bolster the review of officer misconduct cases.
Gascón told debate moderator and University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour he’s skeptical that a new California bill that raises the standard for use of deadly force by police will bolster prosecutors’ ability to bring charges against officers who act unlawfully.
Assembly Bill 392, signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in August, requires officers to avoid deadly force and only shoot when “necessary.”
Former federal and county-level public defender Rachel Rossi, a candidate for the DA role, said she too is unsure the new standard will move the needle in a big way but promised to strengthen the review of officer misconduct cases.
“Police accountability is extremely important,” Rossi said. “We need prosecution to function independently. We need a justice system that is for everyone.”
Rossi said she would cease prosecutions against homeless people and also eliminate the death penalty as an option in cases her office prosecutes.
Gascón, who entered the race after dropping his bid for reelection as San Francisco DA, also said he would not seek the death penalty in any cases.
“I think it’s immoral and has been proven to not be a deterrent,” Gascón said. “There is no place for it in our society today.”
Rossi, who identifies as a black Latina, has served as counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and criminal justice counsel to Senator Richard Durbin, D-Illinois.
Lacey’s campaign was dealt a blow Tuesday evening when LA County Democratic Party members voted to endorse Gascón.
The move gives Gascón’s campaign a financial and political boost and marks a significant shift in the county.
Lacey maintains endorsements from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Berkeley, and Representative Adam Schiff, D-LA, as well support from unions representing LA County law enforcement.
A spokesperson for Lacey’s reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment on why the incumbent skipped the debate Wednesday.
Deputy District Attorney Richard Ceballos announced Tuesday he is withdrawing from the race.
Ceballos, an openly-gay veteran prosecutor, was the first to announce a campaign challenging his boss.
He said in a statement Wednesday that he believes LA County needs to move away from Lacey’s “archaic” policies.
“At a time when we should be accepting of new ideas on criminal justice and jurisprudence, Jackie Lacey has continued to perpetuate the mass incarceration of our citizens,” Ceballos said in the statement. “Her refusal to address the racial and social inequalities that have for too long plagued our criminal justice system have destroyed the communities she has sworn to serve.”
Former San Francisco prosecutor Nancy Tung said in a LA Association of Deputy District Attorneys newsletter Tuesday that many attorneys quit out of protest for Gascón’s lack of leadership in the DA’s office.
“Reputationally, San Francisco is now widely regarded as the place where you can commit a crime and get away with it,” Tung said. “And when you have a weak DA like George Gascón, it’s no wonder San Francisco has gone by the wayside, crooks commute into San Francisco to commit crime, and why many were celebrating his departure.”
Gascón has previously served in leadership at police departments in San Francisco and Mesa, Arizona.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has endorsed Lacey.