L.A. County District Attorney race may be the ‘most important’ in the country

Candidates George Gascón and Jackie Lacey are facing off in an election that could shape criminal justice reform for years to come.

In an election year marked by a public health crisis and a movement for sweeping criminal justice reform, many Southern California voters are watching the Los Angeles County District Attorney race as closely as the presidential election.

The election will be something of a referendum on the traditional, tough-on-crime prosecution that Lacey, like many before her, pursued.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors called it the “most important D.A. race” in the country, and on Oct. 4, Mayor Eric Garcetti rescinded his endorsement of Lacey and shifted his support to Gascón.

“George Gascón will help our county shift the burden from the criminal justice system and jails toward diversion, intervention and re-entry programs that save money and save lives,” the mayor’s statement read.

Rep. Adam Schiff also dropped his endorsement of Lacey in June, alluding to the protests for racial justice that were still at their peak.

Voters will be choosing between Lacey and a more progressive prosecutorial policy centered on prison diversion and restorative justice. The decision is framed by this summer’s protest movement after the police killing of George Floyd.

Lacey is under scrutiny

“In many ways, prosecutors have been under the radar for many years,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution. “Not many in our community have understood the power that they wield and the influence that they have over not just peoples' lives, but our communities writ large… And I think that that has really been a growing awakening in many instances.”

This awakening is defined by progressive reforms in criminal justice, Krinsky said. “More and more communities have been asking for a different starting point,” she said, “to move away from tough on crime practices that we saw in the ’80s and ’90s.”

A recent Los Angeles Times' report showed the starkly different interests behind each candidate: about three-quarters of Lacey’s campaign donations came from law enforcement unions, while roughly the same portion of Gascón’s donations came from wealthy individuals, like George Soros.

Lacey, a native Angeleno and USC alum, became the first African American and the first female D.A. of L.A. County in 2012, a time when only about 1% of elected prosecutors in the United States were women of color. Although she was hand-picked by her Republican predecessor, Steve Cooley, and did not offer a distinctly progressive challenge to the status quo, many on the left saw Lacey as an ally; in 2016, she coasted to re-election unopposed.

“Our initial interactions with Jackie Lacey were meant to be very friendly,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter and chair of Pan-African studies at Cal State L.A., speaking on the two-year anniversary of their protests demanding Lacey’s resignation. “We thought, like most voters thought: ‘We have a Black woman D.A., she’s gonna stand up for Black people.’”

BLM and other activists quickly became frustrated with Lacey’s refusal to prosecute law enforcement officers for murder after police shootings, her office’s use of the death penalty, and the outsized effect of these policies on communities of color.

This October marks the third year of their weekly protests outside the District Attorney’s office in Downtown L.A.

The second anniversary of Black Lives weekly protests outside Jackie Lacey’s office, demanding her resignation.(Video by Priyanka Suryaneni)

An ACLU report found that only people of color were sentenced to death under Lacey. At the same time, nearly 25% of the victims of police shootings are Black, while they constitute only 9% of L.A.'s population.

The issue of police violence and misconduct has defined the race in many ways. Since Lacey has declined to prosecute any police involved in killings, and police unions have blocked legislation that could decertify officers for misconduct, many reform-oriented activists say police unions hold too much power over prosecutors. Gascón wants to end the practice of D.A.s accepting campaign funding from police unions. He was also one of the few prosecutors in 2019 to support Assembly Bill 392, which set higher standards for the use of lethal force by police.

Activists questioned why Lacey’s office took two years to build a case against white donor Ed Buck after a Black man, Gemmel Moore, was found dead in Buck’s West Hollywood home in 2017. Buck was not initially arrested, even after two other men told authorities Buck had injected them with meth against their will. A second man died of an overdose in Buck’s apartment during the time before he was finally charged in 2019.

“We are very much aware of race,” Lacey told Annenberg Media in an interview in February. “We’re not blind to it, and we’re very much aware of the discussions on mass incarceration and racial disparities.”

Lacey also invoked her record of expanding housing and resources for people who suffer from mental illness as part of an effort to divert them from the penal system. But overall, the D.A. sees herself as a realist when it comes to reform: “I would describe myself as a reasonable progressive,” she said.

“I have experienced family members who have been incarcerated, family members who have used drugs, had mental health issues, so I understand that we need to take that into account and exercise mercy,” Lacey explained. “On the other hand, there are people who are living in communities of color, who are afraid to go to neighborhood parks, who are afraid to be out at night… and those people deserve safe neighborhoods too.”

Gascón is positioned as the reform candidate

By March, the public conversation coalesced around reform. In 2019, George Gascón left his position as D.A. of San Francisco and interim D.A. Suzy Loftus took over. A few months later, Loftus was defeated by progressive Chesa Boudin, a critic of mass incarceration who promised to end the cash bail system.

The tide had turned toward progressive prosecution as Gascón ran against Lacey in the primary in L.A. Lacey got just under half of the votes, with the rest split between Gascón and Rachel Rossi, another progressive challenger. It was close enough that Lacey was forced into a runoff in November.

Gascón also grew up in L.A. County, but spent more time away from home. Born in Cuba, he moved with his family to Cudahy, in southeastern L.A. County. Gascón worked his way up to assistant chief of police in the LAPD before serving as the chief of police in Mesa, Arizona and San Francisco. He then took over as San Francisco’s D.A. in 2011, when Kamala Harris left the position to serve as California attorney general.

While he was San Francisco’s D.A., Gascón co-authored Proposition 47, a measure passed by California voters that re-categorized many non-violent felony offenses as misdemeanors. Among other things, property crimes involving less than $950 became misdemeanors. Lacey and other D.A.s came out against the proposition, which they said would undermine public safety.

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found “some evidence” that a rise in property crime was correlated with Prop. 47, while a UC Irvine study determined that the measure was “not responsible for the recent upticks in crime throughout California.”

Gascón told Annenberg Media that if elected D.A., he wants to create a “different culture within the office” in the long term, along with an immediate end to death penalty cases and the prosecution of children.

“I’m a very strong believer in restorative justice,” he said. “I am coming in with a very clear goal to reduce the footprint of prosecutions and reduce the number of people that go to jail and prisons with a clear understanding that we also have to make sure that we’re safe, and that we’re victim-centered.”

Some activists have questioned Gascón’s commitment to reforming the criminal justice system, citing his mixed record on the issue. He did not file charges against any officers who killed residents during his tenure as San Francisco D.A.

Gascón told Annenberg Media none of the victims of police killings in San Francisco were unarmed, a distinction he says is important. “The law up until recently was very, very restrictive around when a district attorney could prosecute someone, a police officer, for excessive use of deadly force,” Gascón said, “but the distinction was that I never had any one unarmed.”

Gascón also said Lacey’s office refused to help him reform the law to ease restrictions around prosecuting officers. Few advocates for reform are satisfied with a continuation of Lacey’s policies.

A summer of protest

The summer’s protests for racial justice led to demands for change in the criminal justice system, with increasing pressure on Lacey to leave her position. Although BLM doesn’t endorse either candidate, the organization’s leaders said they want Lacey out of power. BLM-LA amped up their fight against Lacey since the summer.

“The point of those protests is really to push the D.A. out of office to get her to resign,” said Abdullah. The #JackieLaceyMustGo weekly protest, as it’s called, is also an opportunity for BLM to voice their support for the families of those killed by police under Lacey’s leadership.

“It’s not just about firing the officers who killed their loved ones,” Abdullah said. “It’s not just about calling the names of their loved ones. It’s about this question of accountability… We live in a county where our district attorney has completely refused to hold murderous police officers accountable.”

Lacey has clashed with Black Lives Matter organizers over her record and the continued protests against her. In March, her husband David Lacey was accused of pointing a gun at Abdullah, who was leading a protest at the Laceys' home and had rung the doorbell. In October, Abdullah brought a lawsuit against the Laceys over the incident.

“I’ve reached out to Black Lives Matters several times to try to say can we get a small group and sit down and then plan out something where we have a larger group and a larger discussion,” Lacey told Annenberg Media. “But in my experience, that’s not the goal for this group. The goal for this group is to embarrass, harass, bring attention to the matter.”

Gascón’s campaign understands the significance of facing off against a candidate who is positioned as an enemy of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“After the spring and what occurred with George Floyd, I think that more and more people are recognizing what people like myself have been saying for years, and certainly the people in the African-American community,” Gascón told Annenberg Media. “So there’s obviously sort of a day of reckoning, if you will, that is happening with this race.”

Gascón’s progressive message found a foothold, reinforced by years of dissatisfaction with Lacey. The months between the primary and the general election only heightened the urgency of reform for many.

In his interview with Annenberg Media, Gascón made a special appeal to younger voters. “This is critical for our entire community,” he said, “but I would say that certainly the criticality is multiplied many times for young people because this is your future, right?”