Jackie Lacey Met Her Progressive Challengers On Stage For The First Time, And It Was Explosive

A fiery debate outlined what’s at stake in the race to lead the largest prosecutor’s office in the country.

Jackie Lacey Met Her Progressive Challengers On Stage For The First Time, And It Was Explosive

A fiery debate outlined what’s at stake in the race to lead the largest prosecutor’s office in the country.

The three candidates for Los Angeles County district attorney laid out different visions of justice and the role of the office on Wednesday night, in a tense debate that touched on police accountability, the incarceration of people with mental illness, and the role of the DA’s office in addressing homelessness. 

Two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey presented herself as a reasoned advocate of progressive reforms, whose role has been to defend the victims of crime. 

Her challengers, former public defender Rachel Rossi and former San Francisco DA George Gascón, painted Lacey as an old-guard DA who has resisted reform, and overprosecuted and overcharged people of color and those suffering from mental illness. 

The forum was the first time all three candidates shared a stage ahead of the March 3 primary. Lacey declined to attend the first debate, citing a scheduling conflict. 

Passions ran high in the audience, and the debate was punctuated by cries from activists protesting police killings and cheers from Lacey supporters. At a few points, security guards removed protesters from the hall, including Helen Jones, the mother of John Horton, who died in solitary confinement in an LA County jail.

The overrepresentation of people of color in LA’s incarcerated population was a key theme of the night. Lacey said that the conditions behind these disparities, like income and wealth inequality, exist long before people come in contact with her office, but “by the time it comes to me, people have made bad decisions, which requires the prosecutor to respond.”

Rossi said she refuses to believe that Black residents of LA County are making bad decisions at dramatically higher rates than white residents. 

Early on, the debate focused on the handling of defendants with mental illness. Rossi and Gascón zeroed in on a recent RAND Corporation study that said over 60 percent of LA County inmates with mental illness could be diverted away from incarceration. They accused Lacey of ordering her deputies to not seek diversion programs in lieu of incarceration and presiding over a ballooning population of people with mental illness in LA County jails. 

“We know the direction that the deputy district attorneys are given is not to divert,” Gascón said, later calling the DA’s mental health program a “big fraud on the public.” Rossi called for expanding the diversion program and declining to prosecute more cases involving people with mental illness.

Lacey said she has spearheaded mental health diversions, but that there has to be a structure around the program. “You can’t just divert them out into the streets,” she said at the forum, which was hosted by KPCC radio and The Los Angeles Times.

The incumbent DA, who has been more reserved in her public statements about her opponents up to now, went on the attack Wednesday night. She accused Gascón of “speaking from a position of ignorance” and of being hypocritical and pandering because he embraced reform later in his career. Gascón replied that it’s a positive thing when people evolve.

Lacey said that Rossi was not qualified for the job and it would be “irresponsible” to have a public defender take the county’s top prosecutor role. 

Rossi argued that she was best suited to reform the office because she would be coming to the job with a fresh perspective. “I am running for district attorney precisely because I’m a former public defender,” she said. “I genuinely believe Jackie Lacey believes she is doing the right thing, because she has been in this office her entire career, this is all she’s seen. The racial disparities are normal. This is all she knows.”

“This is not a spokesperson job,” Lacey hit back. “This is a job for a real lawyer who understands in their heart and soul what a prosecutor is about.”

Gascón, who left his position in San Francisco to move back to Los Angeles, described Lacey as a “lock em’ up prosecutor” trying to pose as a progressive. He criticized her for failing to press charges in a high-profile 2015 police shooting, against the recommendation of her own police chief. Lacey countered that Gascón had also not pressed charges in fatal police shootings in San Francisco.  

“People can talk trash, but what they will do when the pressure is on is different,” Lacey said, noting that Gascón also faced backlash when he declined to prosecute police officers in the shooting of Mario Woods. 

Gascón has said that California law made it difficult to prosecute police officers for shootings during his tenure as San Francisco DA, and that he was the only DA to support the original draft of California’s Weber bill that imposed a stricter definition guiding police use of force, before it was changed to appease law enforcement. 

Lacey said she declined to support the original Weber bill because she does not “believe in prosecuting people because they made a mistake.” 

Rossi called for an independent prosecutors office to investigate police shootings. “We need a justice system that finally works for all,” she said.

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