The Race To End Mass Incarceration In America’s Second Largest City

Progressive candidates are running to transform the Los Angeles district attorney’s office.
Jackie Lacey (center), the incumbent Los Angeles County district attorney, faces two notable progressive challengers ― Rachel Rossi and George Gascón ― in a March primary.
Jackie Lacey (center), the incumbent Los Angeles County district attorney, faces two notable progressive challengers ― Rachel Rossi and George Gascón ― in a March primary.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County is currently responsible for almost one-third of California’s incarcerated population. Black residents in the county are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of white residents, and LA County jails house more inmates than any other jail system in the country. More than 5,000 of those inmates are struggling with mental illness, making Los Angeles’ jail system the “largest in-patient mental health center” in the nation.

California has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform, slowly undoing policies that contribute to mass incarceration and disproportionately punish the poor and people of color. But in LA County, home to more than 10 million people, District Attorney Jackie Lacey has resisted change, opposing almost every reform measure that’s come up during her eight years in office.

When she was elected in 2012, Lacey became the first woman and the first Black person to serve as district attorney in Los Angeles. Criminal justice reform advocates were cautiously optimistic that Lacey would be open to some change. She grew up in the then-mostly Black neighborhood of Crenshaw, near gang violence and drug dealing. She remembers watching the 1965 Watts riots on television and hearing complaints about racist cops brutalizing members of the community. But when she talks about how her background has influenced her, she emphasizes the victims of criminals — not the victims of unaccountable law enforcement officials.

When Lacey was in her late 20s, her father was shot in the leg while mowing the front lawn. Lacey watched him change from a “very strong, Southern macho guy” to a man who lived in fear that someone would come back to get him. “I see how crime affects communities of color,” she told HuffPost in an interview last month.

Now, criminal justice activists want Lacey gone. On Wednesday afternoons, members of Black Lives Matter LA gather outside Lacey’s downtown office to protest her failure to prosecute police officers who have killed members of the community. More than 500 people have died at the hands of law enforcement since Lacey took office, but her office has prosecuted only one case. Last year, Lacey declined to prosecute a former Los Angeles Police Department officer who killed an unarmed Black man — even after the police chief called on her office to file charges.

The ground-level agitation against Lacey, combined with a nationwide push to elect progressive prosecutors, has brought out two serious challengers in the March 3 primary race for district attorney. Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced his run in October and has secured the LA County Democrats’ endorsement. As one of the leading progressive prosecutors in the country, Gascón oversaw major reforms during his eight-year tenure in San Francisco before moving home to LA. Earlier in his career, he was a high-ranking officer in the LAPD.

Former public defender Rachel Rossi — who has seen firsthand the harm prosecutors can cause when they imprison people who do not pose a public safety threat — is also running for Lacey’s seat. Although she has less name recognition than her opponents, Rossi’s experience as a public defender has earned her support from voters who are typically skeptical of prosecutors.

The district attorney race might be “the most important item before voters in 2020,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board argued in October. If that sounds hyperbolic, consider that this DA’s office is the largest local prosecutorial agency in the country. Like most district attorneys, the top LA prosecutor has vast discretion about how aggressively to pursue certain crimes. With the country’s second-largest city as a proving ground, the next DA might be able to demonstrate that a meaningful decrease in incarceration doesn’t inevitably lead to an explosion in crime — and that police can be held accountable for harming civilians without a breakdown in civil order.

Progressive district attorney candidates George Gascón (second to left) and Rachel Rossi (far right) participate in a summit on reforming the Los Angeles County jail system.
Progressive district attorney candidates George Gascón (second to left) and Rachel Rossi (far right) participate in a summit on reforming the Los Angeles County jail system.
Jesse Grant via Getty Images

Two years ago, Lacey walked out of her own town hall meeting after being interrupted by Black Lives Matter supporters chanting, “You help killer cops.” Lacey hasn’t met with members of the group since then. “She’s not willing to be held accountable by the constituents who elected her,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA.

Lacey describes herself as a progressive and thinks some of her critics are being unfair. With Black Lives Matter, it became “we’re here to tell you off, we’re here to embarrass you and humiliate you,” she told HuffPost.

Instances where police officers shoot civilians without legal justification “are difficult cases to prove,” Lacey said. “The law allows officers to use deadly force if they reasonably believe that their life or someone else’s life is in danger,” she continued. “So our position is we do our best, we follow the law.”

Lacey personally reviews officer-involved shootings and makes the final call on whether to press charges, she told HuffPost. It’s a conflict of interest to have any prosecutor who must work closely with police on other cases decide whether to press charges against officers, the DA’s opponents say. In San Francisco, Gascón created an independent unit inside the district attorney’s office that focused on investigating shootings by police officers and decided whether to prosecute. If elected, he has said he plans to do the same in Los Angeles. Rossi has said she would appoint independent prosecutors in cases where police officers kill or severely injure members of the community.

As DA, Gascón also faced protests for failing to prosecute officers who shot civilians. In 2018, he filed a restraining order against a frequent protester who wrote #JailKillerCops in chalk on the side of Gascón’s house. He has also blamed laws governing the use of deadly force by police for his office’s record on pursuing charges — but unlike Lacey, Gascón has been an outspoken critic of those use-of-force laws and has pushed for reform.

Until recently, California law allowed police officers who had a “reasonable” belief they were in danger to shoot. This standard allowed police to get away with killing people who were unarmed. Last year, California passed a law limiting police officers to using deadly force only when “necessary.”

Lacey agrees with the current law but her opponents have called for further reform. Gascón has said he’d push for a single definition of the “necessary” standard for all 55 law enforcement agencies in LA County. That standard would require law enforcement to attempt to de-escalate a situation first and to use force only as a last resort.

Rossi has described the current law as a “watered-down version of where we should be,” cautioning that prosecutors should not “hide behind the law.”

“Under the law we even had prior to the most recent reform, there are cases where we can and should have presented those cases to a grand jury for potential filing,” Rossi told the Appeal.

Gascón’s criticism of the “unreasonably permissive” use-of-force laws carries weight with some activists in LA. “He hasn’t prosecuted police the way we would like a prosecutor to do,” said Abdullah, the Black Lives Matter LA co-founder, “but part of what he was saying in that moment is that there are legal barriers to prosecution that he supported lifting.”

Black Lives Matter doesn’t endorse candidates — and Abdullah said she personally feels most comfortable with Rossi — but she appreciates that Gascón and his campaign have continuously reached out to the group to discuss policy, she said. Patrisse Cullors, a Black Lives Matter co-founder from LA, has endorsed both Rossi and Gascón.

Beyond increasing accountability for law enforcement, Gascón and Rossi are campaigning on dramatically changing the district attorney office’s overall approach to criminal justice. They argue that they can make communities safer by putting fewer people in prison and expanding access to mental health and drug treatment. Recent history is on their side: Los Angeles incarcerates people at four times the rate that San Franciso does ― but during the period of time when Lacey and Gascón were both in office, violent crime rates went slightly up in Los Angeles and slightly down in San Francisco. Studies have shown that lengthy prison sentences can actually increase the risk of recidivism.

To break that cycle, Gascón and Rossi have both pledged not to prosecute low-level offenses like public urination, open container violations, stealing of necessities and trespassing when those offenses are related to the offender experiencing poverty or homelessness. “This stuff is not about being soft, it’s not about looking the other way, it’s not about giving people a pass,” Gascón told HuffPost. “It’s about actually applying science and research to make sure we enhance community safety by having the right level of intervention.”

When left-leaning states began legalizing marijuana — a move welcomed by criminal justice reform advocates because of the racial disparities in enforcing cannabis laws — Lacey opposed efforts to do the same in California. She visited “marijuana stores” in Colorado and “saw a lot of young people, a lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, sitting inside those doors looking drugged out,” Lacey said. “So I just went with my conscience. If you ask me, do our children need more drugs around? No. And, you know, I just could not vote to legalize it based on that.”

After Californians voted to legalize weed, Gascón’s office unilaterally dismissed thousands of marijuana convictions in San Francisco, without requiring individuals to petition to have their records expunged. At the same time, Lacey — whose office previously prosecuted more people for violating marijuana laws than any other prosecutor’s office in California — encouraged Angelinos to turn the courts to grant expungement, a time-consuming process that can require assistance from lawyers. “Very few people took the legal action required to clear their records,” Lacey acknowledged a year later when she announced a partnership with the nonprofit Code for America to follow Gascón’s lead and proactively clear marijuana convictions.

“She visited ‘marijuana stores’ in Colorado and ‘saw a lot of young people, a lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, sitting inside those doors looking drugged out,’ Jackie Lacey said.”

Lacey has also broken with her constituents on the death penalty. Even after a majority of Los Angeles voters supported ballot measures to repeal the death penalty in 2012 and 2016 (both measures failed statewide), Lacey continued to pursue death sentences. Last year the American Civil Liberties Union found that all of the 22 defendants sentenced to death during Lacey’s time in office were people of color.

Asked about the ACLU’s report, Lacey accused the organization of focusing on “a short timeframe” to portray the DA’s office as a “capital punishment machine.” (The report covered people who received death sentences while Lacey was DA.) She justified the death penalty as justice for victims of the most horrific acts of violence. Many of the victims in the capital cases she oversaw were people of color, she said. To underscore her point, Lacey pulled out an iPad and opened a photo album labeled “Death Penalty Victims.” As she swiped through the photos of Black and brown women and children, she recounted the victims’ names, their ages and the gruesome ways they were killed.

Lacey met with the ACLU before they released their report. She claimed they told her that her “process” in capital cases appeared to be fair. ACLU deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson said Lacey mischaracterized their meeting. “In terms of her process, she was the only one who was impressed with her process,” Robinson said.

“She kept lauding it, saying, ‘Look at my capital circumstances committee. I’m a Black woman. My committee has all these diverse people on it,’” Robinson said. But Lacey’s process is not good enough as long as her office is obtaining death sentences only against people of color, he continued. “For a person in an office where its job is to hold other people accountable for their actions, this is shameful,” he said.

Both Gascón and Rossi have pledged to never seek the death penalty and to reexamine death penalty cases involving individuals who have mental illnesses or who were under 21 at the time of the offense.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey announces that film producer Harvey Weinstein has been charged with raping a woman and sexually assaulting another at a news conference in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, 2020.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey announces that film producer Harvey Weinstein has been charged with raping a woman and sexually assaulting another at a news conference in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, 2020.
Damian Dovarganes/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The March 3 primary marks the most competitive race of Lacey’s career. She was backed by the outgoing district attorney in her first race and ran for reelection unopposed in 2016. It is also the first time the tough-on-crime prosecutor has campaigned against the backdrop of a nationwide progressive prosecutor movement.

Facing two challengers from the left, Lacey has at times highlighted some of her progressive credentials. In September, she released a statement describing her commitment to reforming cash bail, a system that forces poor people into pretrial incarceration while letting those who can afford to pay bail await trial in freedom.

Although it is true that Lacey eventually supported S.B. 10, California’s cash bail reform law, she first worked with state lawmakers to weaken the bill. In a 2017 letter to the state senator who introduced the legislation, Lacey wrote that the initial version of the bill was too “dramatic” and said she opposed it. The amended version of the bill that Lacey ultimately supported replaced cash bail with risk assessments — a system in which an individual’s arrest and conviction history can be used to make a statistical estimate of how likely they are to miss a court date or break the law if they are not held in pretrial detention. Because of bias in other parts of the criminal justice system, risk assessments will likely also create racial disparities in who is held in pretrial detention, Rossi told The Justice Collaborative.

Those appeals to progressive priorities aside, Lacey is largely copying the fear-based playbook that has been wielded against progressive challengers in other district attorney races. She also enjoys the benefits of being a two-term incumbent.

Lacey told a local television station in December that Gascón “doesn’t care about your safety, [and] he certainly didn’t seem to care about the safety of the people of San Francisco.” The Los Angeles Police Protective League (the police union) has contributed $1 million to a PAC devoted to smearing Gascón as dangerously lenient on crime.

In 2018, five reform candidates lost their primary races for prosecutor posts in California, having faced similar fear-mongering from their opponents. Part of the challenge for progressive candidates is that voters aren’t used to paying attention to district attorney races. Nationwide, 85% of prosecutors run unopposed, meaning there isn’t usually any choice for voters to make. Even when there is a choice, voters who prefer more progressive candidates may also distrust anybody who holds the top prosecutor’s job.

Rossi said she has met people who say, “Oh, prosecutor, I don’t care about that race, they’re gonna throw me in jail.” Being able to respond that she wants to “completely change what a prosecutor is” gives her credibility among voters who might otherwise ignore the race, Rossi said, noting that she has never prosecuted a case.

Some voters may also be influenced for ― or against ― different DA candidates by the Trump administration’s attacks on the nationwide progressive prosecutor movement. In August, Attorney General William Barr spoke at a conference for the Fraternal Order of Police and slammed “district attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers.” These prosecutors, Barr claimed without evidence, “spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”

Two days later, William McSwain, a Trump-appointed federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was a “Soros-funded” prosecutor who was making the city more dangerous. McSwain publicly blamed Krasner for a shooting in Philadelphia that injured six police officers.

Barr attacked progressive prosecutors again in a speech this week, accusing them of “putting everyone in danger.”

A progressive win in a county as large and influential as Los Angeles would represent a massive boost for the reform movement. “It would show that this is something that Americans want,” said Summer Lacey, a former deputy federal public defender in LA. “When you see these elections and you see the people who are winning, you see a reflection of public consciousness shifting in a way towards reform and transformative justice practices.”

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