Daniel Nichanian/The Appeal

“We’re at a watershed moment for criminal justice reform,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, says about Measure R and LA’s upcoming DA election.

Angelenos have multiple opportunities on Tuesday’s ballot to weigh in on a core question: whether we are asking the criminal legal system to do too much, and what it would take to shrink it and look elsewhere. 

Measure R, a countywide ballot initiative, would direct a local commission to design a plan to reduce the jail population, and invest instead in community services, especially for mental health, substance use, and homelessness.

And in the race for Los Angeles County district attorney, incumbent Jackie Lacey faces two challengers who are each proposing to lessen the criminalization of behaviors that stem from such problems, and to reduce incarceration. 

“It’s still this knee-jerk reaction for a lot of us to say, ‘Well, I disagree with that conduct, let’s prosecute,’” Rachel Rossi, a former public defender who is running against Lacey, told me in January. “We really need to rethink whether incarceration or entry into the criminal justice system at all is the right answer for a lot of specific activities or charges.” George Gascón, the former San Francisco DA who is also challenging Lacey, said his “north star” is to look for ways to “reinvest” the “funding that has been invested in criminal justice” into “education, public parks, or other activities that are more likely to create safer and healthier communities over a longer period of time.”

Past Los Angeles elections have not made space for these conversations. In her most recent re-election bid, in June 2016, Lacey didn’t face a single opponent.

Just months earlier, in March 2016, Chicago activists had succeeded at ousting State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the wake of Laquan McDonald’s shooting by a police officer. By then, Lacey was facing criticism over her failure to prosecute cases of police brutality. But that year’s uncontested DA race offered no opportunity to hash that out, nor for that matter to debate any issue involving prosecution. Angelenos had already signaled they wanted reform. In 2014, they had overwhelmingly approved a statewide initiative (Proposition 47) that reduced charging levels for drug possession and some theft cases. Lacey had opposed the measure, and yet two years later, she faced no challenger in the race to decide who would implement Proposition 47.

Today, 2016 feels like light-years away. Chicago’s prison admissions have declined by 20 percent since Kim Foxx replaced Alvarez, while a wave of progressives have joined Foxx in DA offices from San Francisco to suburban Virginia on promises of slashing incarceration and holding police accountable. 

And this year, Lacey’s challengers say this wave should reach Los Angeles County too. 

“We are the leaders of injustice in this country,” Gascón said of Los Angeles’s criminal legal system at a Feb. 22 campaign event. He assailed Lacey’s frequent use of the death penalty and pointed to LA’s incarceration rate being four times higher than San Francisco’s, where Gascón served as DA from 2011 to 2019. “Los Angeles County incarcerates more Black and brown people than anywhere else in the country for behaviors that often, in other places, would not have criminal consequences,” he added at another event later that day. “Black and brown children are not given the opportunity to grow up.” 

Rossi mirrors this sense of urgency. “What has driven me to want to be a prosecutor is seeing, at every stage of the process, the need for reform,” she said in January. “When it comes to walking into a courtroom and only seeing Black and brown people locked up. When it comes to seeing the incredible amounts of time that people are sentenced to, and how it is not effective.” 

Critics fault Lacey for fueling incarceration and vast racial inequality, and for fighting statewide reforms. Her campaign did not answer requests for comment or for an interview.

Still, some of this criticism was in the air four years ago, to no effect on the DA race. I asked Patrisse Cullors, the LA-based co-founder of Black Lives Matter, what changed. “Organizing,” she said. “A decade ago, people didn’t know there was a DA, let alone what a DA did. A decade ago, people were more interested in locking people up, and less interested in figuring out alternatives to incarceration. What we’ve seen is a rising movement of people wanting to have a different set of conditions for Black communities, poor communities, and brown communities, especially in Los Angeles County.”

“We have to build a local movement to get to where we are today,” Cullors added. 

Since the fall of 2017, a coalition of organizations, including Black Lives Matters-LA, have held a weekly protest outside of Lacey’s office over a lack of police accountability.

Local groups, such as LA Voice and the Community Coalition, have also focused on another corner of local law enforcement: the sheriff’s department (LASD). Since becoming sheriff in 2018, Alex Villanueva has reinstated a string of deputies fired by his predecessor for misconduct. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported on allegations of beatings by sheriff’s deputies who brand themselves like gangs. 

Reform advocates, building on the long history of policing activism in Los Angeles, have called for stronger oversight into the LASD.

Their work has given birth to Measure R, which made it onto Tuesday’s ballot through the grassroots efforts of Reform L.A. County Jails, a group chaired by Cullors, who called it “the culmination of 15 years of organizing.”

Measure R would enable the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) to conduct independent investigations over the LASD by granting it subpoena power. The COC currently lacks that power, which significantly hampers its investigations when the LASD is not willing to cooperate. As noted above, Measure R would also direct the COC to design a jail-reduction plan.

“We’re at a watershed moment for criminal justice reform in Los Angeles,” said Cullors.

In California’s electoral system, a DA candidate will win outright on March 3 if they top 50 percent. Otherwise, the top two contenders will move on to a November runoff. These rules blunt the prospect that a fractured field hands the election to any one candidate. 

They free up voters to consider who they think best suits their views of criminal justice reform.

I asked each of the campaigns this week what they would tell those voters who are interested in changing Los Angeles’s approach to criminal justice and moving away from incarceration. 

Lacey’s campaign did not reply. Elsewhere, she has called herself a “reasonable reformer,” while also defending punitive policies as a matter of holding people accountable for “making some very bad choices.” Critics have questioned the efficiency of her reforms, though, for instance noting the low number of exonerations obtained by the conviction integrity unit she created, and faulting her for not devoting enough resources to diverting people with mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system.

Gascón and Rossi replied, meanwhile, by owning up to the contrast in their professional backgrounds. Each described their own experience as best suited to reform Los Angeles.

Gascón’s message was that as a former DA himself, he has already accomplished the sort of policies he’d want to implement on LA’s bigger stage. 

“I’m the only one with a history of proven success,” Gascón told me. He pointed to his initiatives in San Francisco (some of which were at issue in the race to succeed him) and to his role crafting and championing reforms like Proposition 47. “It’s one thing to have done it, and another to talk about it.” In a separate conversation, Joseph Iniguez, a deputy prosecutor who is supporting Gascón, said that he believes Gascón’s experience managing a large DA’s office is essential to navigating the institutional and intra-office hurdles other progressives have encountered upon becoming DA.

Rossi’s message was that her background as a former public defender gives her a better perspective on the system’s injustices and a stronger ability to overhaul its norms.

“Jackie Lacey and George Gascon are both career law enforcement politicians,” she said this week in an email via a spokesperson. “If we want to see a new vision of justice, we must re-envision what a prosecutor looks like by electing someone new – someone who has a career of standing with, and fighting for, the people of L.A.” Rossi developed this point at greater length in our January Q&A. “It takes a public defender or someone who sees the other side to completely shift that focus,” she said then. 

Before becoming San Francisco’s DA, Gascón was a Los Angeles Police Department officer, and later on, he was the police chief of Mesa, Arizona; there, he clashed with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over immigration policy. Rossi is a former state and federal public defender. She also worked in Congress on the First Step Act, the federal criminal justice reform.

In drawing experiential contrasts to one another this week, neither Gascón nor Rossi pointed to a specific policy disagreement.

They also made similar policy commitments in wide-ranging interviews last month. (Read the Q&A with Gascón, and the one with Rossi.)

Both made a case for less incarceration, and zeroed in on ending the criminalization of acts linked to mental health and homelessness as the first step. “Oftentimes justice may mean a restorative outcome. Oftentimes justice may mean never filing a case,” said Rossi. Both also said they would not prosecute sex workers, and Rossi promised to “publicly advocate for” the decriminalization of sex work.

Besides declining or diverting more lower-level offenses, both also said they wished to roll back the other end of the spectrum and implement mechanisms to review sentencing recommendations that are longer than 15 to 20 years. “What is obviously working around the world is that initially anything over 20 years becomes pretty worthless in terms of public safety, return on investment, with very few exceptions,” said Gascón.

Both also said they opposed the death penalty, in stark contrast to Lacey’s record. 

Both argued that California’s gang databases are discriminatory, and said they would not trust them. At a Feb. 22 event, Gascón called on the legislature to eliminate the CalGang database. Both promised to maintain lists of police officers with a history of misconduct. Gascón described learning to not take police reports at face value in the wake of the Rampart scandal, which rocked the LAPD in the 1990s. Rossi said she would tell law enforcement that she would no longer agree to file cases if her data showed patterns of only policing certain communities.

On matters of policing, though, Gascón has faced his own share of protests.

He has been criticized for his repeated decisions as DA of San Francisco to not prosecute police officers who shot and killed individuals. He replied that the law is too permissive when it comes to police shootings and that it would not have enabled him to win these cases had he charged the police officers. 

HuffPost reported earlier this month that Lacey has used similar arguments to defend her own decisions to not prosecute — but also that Gascón, unlike Lacey, has accompanied this defense by pushing the legislature to change state law to make it easier to prosecute police officers.

Lawmakers did adopt a reform in 2019, but only after weakening the standards Gascón was championing. He says the new law still does not go far enough. Rossi agrees. “It’s very important that we reform the law,” she said. “But,” she also warned, “as prosecutors, we also cannot hide behind the law.” She declined to point to a case she thinks Gascón should have prosecuted, but did name a specific case (the killing of Brendon Glenn) where she believes Lacey’s office could have filed charges. Gascón and Rossi both say they would ask an independent board to review cases of police shootings to make charging decisions.

The county’s Democratic Party endorsed Gascón in December, and its Democratic Socialists of America chapter has endorsed Rossi. Lacey is a Democrat as well.

Whoever wins the DA election, local organizers are intent on not leaving it to one individual to have sole discretion over whether there will be accountability and decarceration in Los Angeles.

If Measure R passes, empowering a civilian board to investigate sheriff practices, it would validate the standard that law enforcement should not be policing itself.

It would also affirm that the responsibility to shrink the criminal legal systems lies not just in the hands of the DA, whose policies are discretionary and easily reversible, but in the hands of other political officials who can impose more durable constraints, such as providing less funding for carceral-minded approaches.

Measure R provides that the COC should submit its study on how to reduce jails and invest in community services to the county’s board of supervisors for consideration. 

The board would be under no obligation to implement its recommendations, though.

Measure R would still represent “a mandate of the people to implement this plan,” said Miguel Paredes, an organizer with the Yes on Measure R campaign. A win would “set a precedent for how the community can really reclaim their power. For us, it’s about passing this measure, having that political mandate, and making sure that it gets implemented.”

Cullors says local groups are ready to fight for that. “Local elections are way more sexy than they ever were,” she said. Name-checking the sheriff, whomever wins the DA’s office, and the county’s supervisors, she warned that people know they need to put “pressure on those elected officials to both do the right thing but also let them know that if they don’t do the right thing, we’ll get them out of office.”

Read our other coverage of 2020 local elections.