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L.A. Prosecutor Touts Her Mental Health Reforms, But Critics Say She’s Making The Crisis Worse

Advocates and attorneys say Jackie Lacey’s rhetoric doesn’t match her actions.

Photo of LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie LaceyCounty website

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey was posing for photos at a recent event intended to raise awareness about mental health when activists confronted her, shouting “Jackie Lacey must go” and waving signs saying “#ByeJackie2020.” Lacey, the county’s first Black DA, took office in 2012 and is facing an election next year. Many criminal justice reform advocates are now aligned against her.

“Jackie Lacey tried to sneak in unannounced,” Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles later posted on Facebook along with the video. “What hypocrisy!”

The activists were angry, they said, that the DA, an avowed reformer, has generally refused to prosecute police officers for shooting civilians. More than a third of officer-involved shootings last year involved people with perceived mental illnesses, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s annual use of force report.

“She sends a message that their lives are not important,” said Melina Abdullah, a founder of Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles. “That police can get away with murder.”

Video posted by Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles showing activists confronting Lacey.

That critique of Lacey isn’t new. High-profile shootings like that of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill Black man who was killed in 2014, led to calls for Lacey to hold police accountable, a call that has often gone unheeded. She faced a recall effort in 2017 because she didn’t press charges against the officers who shot Ford.

During her tenure, she has prosecuted only one police officer for killing a civilian. In two cases in which excessive force was alleged, she declined to prosecute officers despite recommendations from the LAPD and California Highway Patrol that charges be pressed.

“Jackie Lacey has been a major disappointment as DA on two major counts,” Earl Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, which connects community leaders, policymakers, and activists, told The Appeal by email. “Her record on failing to prosecute bad cops is shameful.”

And despite her efforts to keep people with mental illness out of the criminal legal system, Hutchinson said, she’s simultaneously sending more in.

“She made many promises about a benign, therapeutic approach to dealing with the mentally challenged accused of crimes,” Hutchinson said. “However, she has still gone full bore in the prosecution of, rather than treatment and services first [for], these individuals”

Lacey’s office declined to comment on the allegations that she is continuing to prosecute people with mental illness or on the criticism of her handling of police shootings.

In a press release last year regarding her decision not to prosecute the police officer who shot Ford, she defended her choice. “We did everything we could to ensure a comprehensive investigation,” she said. “Although the loss of Mr. Ford’s life is tragic, we believe the officers’ actions were legally justified and the evidence supports our decision.”

Lacey has long expressed concern about how the criminal legal system treats people with mental illness. In 2015, she issued “A Blueprint for Change,” a report that underscored the importance of to diverting people with mental health and substance use disorders from jail.  

“This is our first comprehensive attempt to fundamentally change the way we treat mentally ill people in Los Angeles County when they come into contact with law enforcement personnel,” Lacey said in a statement at the time. “When implemented, these recommendations will provide treatment options to safely divert nonviolent, mentally ill offenders from jail, which is more costly, and at times, inhumane.”

The county’s mental health diversion program, which has served around 3,000 people so far, gives people housing and treatment while their criminal cases are underway. And the county has made other strides since then: Under a settlement, mentally ill detainees are supposed to be matched with service providers while in jail, and the Board of Supervisors recently announced plans to replace the men’s jail with a mental health facility.

But critics say Lacey herself isn’t the reformer she has claimed to be. Though in January she announced a new division in her office devoted to serving people with mental illness, the unit only has about two staffers, according to Joseph Iniguez, an assistant district attorney in Lacey’s office who is running against her in 2020. And Iniguez said line prosecutors aren’t properly trained on how to handle cases involving people with mental illness in court.

“We’ve had training on how to address mental health defenses—so literally ways to fight mental health defenses,” Iniguez told The Appeal. “But we haven’t been equipped to understand and deal with mental health illness and how to treat a human that’s brought into our process in the first place.”

As in many other large cities, roughly 30 percent of the people in jail in Los Angeles have mental health issues.

But rather than fight to keep them out, Lacey’s office is often charging people with mental illnesses with new crimes once they are detained.

One Los Angeles public defender, who declined to be named for fear of retribution against his clients, described how easy it is for a person with a mental illness to rack up more charges while incarcerated. His client, a man with a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations being held in an LA County jail faced three additional charges for breaking a window and throwing food or liquid at a correction officer. In another case the public defender recalled, his colleague represented a person who was charged with a felony for making a criminal threat while asking for medical treatment at a psychiatric hospital.

“[Lacey] could have used both these opportunities to not file or use her discretion not to file on clients that are committing alleged crimes or low-level offenses where mental health is clearly an issue,” said the public defender. “What value is there in charging these low-level felonies?”

Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney on the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, agreed. “In very few circumstances does prosecuting defendants with these [mental health] concerns address the underlying issues,” Trivedi told The Appeal by email. “And jailing runs a high risk of making them worse.”

“In my view, a truly progressive DA would get herself out of this game entirely,” he said. “She would push for much earlier mental health interventions—preferably in the community before any law enforcement interaction, but at least in lieu of arrest—so that her office never has to play amateur psychiatrist at all.”

Other advocates say the county’s much-touted mental health diversion program is leaving out the people who need it the most. Though the program excludes, by statute, anyone charged with murder, rape, and certain sexual abuse crimes, the public defender and Iniguez both said Lacey’s office sometimes objects to diverting people who aren’t in that category but are charged with other crimes deemed violent or who have a record of violence.

“You create so many exceptions, it’s like, ‘Who is the candidate that you intend to address by this law?’” said the public defender.

Iniguez said, in his experience, supervisors in the DA’s office are reluctant to agree to diversion or rehab for defendants rather than prosecution. “It is very, very hard to get approval from our supervisors and I think that’s just wrong,” Iniguez told The Appeal, noting that he was speaking based only on his experience in the office.

Lacey’s office declined to comment on the allegation that it was failing to support diversion for people who could and should be diverted.

The public defender noted the irony in keeping people charged with violent crimes out of programs that could help them. “What’s frustrating is this lack of knowledge about how untreated, especially long-term untreated, mental illness in poor and less-resourced communities can lead to quote-unquote ‘violence,’” the public defender told The Appeal.

“We’re never going to really address our over-incarceration or our incarceration issue if we just tinker around the edges.”