The race for Los Angeles County district attorney has variously been called the second and sometimes first most important competitive race in the county this election season. It is.
And the race has drawn a jam-packed field of mostly prosecutors and law enforcement types. All seek to oust L.A. County D.A. Jackie Lacey.
For the most part, they are all scratching and clawing to carve out a niche as the district attorney who will be both tough on crime and at the same time pledge reforms that shift away from the lock ’em up approach that has bulged the nation’s jails and prisons. The bulge has been mostly poor black and Hispanic male and females.
The balance between crime fighting and criminal justice reform is a tough one to strike. Two candidates say they can accomplish that.
One is former LAPD command officer and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. The other is former L.A. County Public Defender Rachel Rossi.
Both know that it will be a brutal, hard fought and costly campaign to defeat Lacey. Lacey has most of the usual suspects behind her, police unions, prison guard unions and the local establishment politicians. She is well-financed and a tough, experienced campaigner, and she touts both her crime-fighting and reform records.
But Lacey also has major vulnerabilities. It’s not just her head in the sand refusal to prosecute police misconduct. It’s also her zeal at prosecuting capital cases where the accused are black or Hispanic.
One study found that in the nearly two dozen cases in which she has sought the death penalty, not one of the defendants was white.
She has bucked a growing nationwide trend among prosecutors to back off the death penalty except in the most heinous cases and to find more ways to fund and push rehab, treatment and alternative sentencing to prevent packing the jails with drug and petty non-violent offenders.
Lacey has angered others with her refusal to prosecute former Democratic party donor Ed Buck, who has had two blacks dies of methamphetamine overdoses at his home in 2017. Lacey finally charged Buck after the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed charges against him after a third person accused Buck of giving him an overdose of methamphetamine.
The two great litmus tests for any district attorney candidate to pass is what they will do about police misconduct cases and tackling the hideous problem of mass incarceration. Rossi has been the most outspoken on the issue of mass incarceration, promising to radically pivot the district attorney’s office to reform measures that decriminalize many non-violent crimes, expand alternative sentencing, bail reform, and a major expansion of education and rehab programs for offenders.
Gascon also assures that he will ramp up programs that rehabilitate, not incarcerate. He also says he’ll take a flexible, transparent approach to police abuse cases.
A proposal has been floated that the next district attorney should take a bold step and set up an Office of Special Prosecutor of Police Misconduct within the D.A.s office. It would likely be the first in the nation.
It would be tasked with investigating, and where warranted, prosecuting police officers for racial profiling, and excessive force.
That should be on the plate of the next district attorney, particularly after the revelation that several LAPD officers falsified reports identifying the mostly black and Hispanic young men on street stops in South L.A. as gang members. That was a blatant lie and blatant racial profiling.
The next district attorney can’t fulfill their sworn job of being the public’s top legal protector without administering even-handed justice. A badge and a gun must not be a shield for abuse and law-breaking. The offender must be treated no different than any other lawbreaker.
The ranks of district attorneys who are not willing to turn a blind eye toward police misconduct and take real steps to end mass incarceration are growing. They have shown that they can be tough on crime, yet still hold cops accountable when they break the law.
They can at the same time back effective alternative programs to put the brakes on the continued mass incarceration of mostly poor blacks and Hispanics.
Lacey and her opponents can and should answer these questions. Will your office continue the push to lock up far more people proportionally than any other county in the state? Will there be full transparency in your investigation of officers who use excessive force? Will your office continue to fight hard against the release of prisoners convicted of murder who haven’t committed the murder though they were involved in a felony?
Will your office still vigorously push the death penalty? Will your office push to expunge the records of offenders who have paid their debt to society but are hampered by that record when seeking employment?
L.A. County residents deserve answers to these questions. I, too, want to see and hear those answers from L.A.’s next district attorney.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “What’s Right and Wrong with The Electoral College” (Amazon ebook). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.