Rachel Rossi Wants To Be LA's Next DA. She's Promising To End 'Archaic' Approach To Justice

Rachel Rossi outside the women's jail in South L.A., where she announced her run for DA on Tuesday. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

In the latest example of a sea change under way in the politics of crime, former federal public defender Rachel Rossi will challenge Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey for control of the nation's largest local prosecutor's office.

Rossi, who has no prosecutorial experience, promised to bring a "smarter and more equitable vision" to the position.

"We have settled for an archaic vision of justice," Rossi told a group of supporters Tuesday outside the women's jail in Lynwood in South L.A., where she announced her candidacy. "It's time for change."

Rossi is the only non-prosecutor challenging Lacey.

Rossi, 36, grew up in L.A., attended Claremont High School and graduated from Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz. She said she got interested in the law after an internship in a public defender's office.

A VOW TO BRING 'HUMANITY INTO THE PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE'

"Just seeing the desperate people, who all too often were black and brown and always tended to be low income, I just saw something as very unfair and wanted to do something to fix it," Rossi told KPCC/LAist.

She graduated from Pepperdine Law School and went on to serve as a county, then federal, public defender in L.A. before moving to Washington, D.C. three years ago to work with Sen. Dick Durbin on the First Step Act. That law — the first significant criminal justice reform bill in two decades — rolled back draconian federal mandatory minimum prison terms.

"If we can bring some humanity into the prosecutor's office," Rossi said, "I think we can create some amazing change."

Up until recently, it would have been unthinkable to elect a public defender as DA. But amid growing concerns about over-incarceration, that's what happened in San Francisco earlier this month with the election of Chesa Boudin, and in Philadelphia in 2017 with the election of Larry Krasner. Three years ago, Chicago voters elected Kim Foxx, a prosecutor who billed herself as a reformer who would seek to place fewer people behind bars.

Like Lacey, Rossi is also a woman of color. Her father is Afro-Dominican; her mother is of Greek descent.

In that sense, she presents a unique challenge to Lacey, who was the first woman and first African-American elected district attorney in Los Angeles. It's also worth noting there are no white men in the race so far — another first. The filing deadline for candidates is Dec. 6.

A FIELD FULL OF 'REFORM' CANDIDATES

Lacey's three other challengers also present themselves as reform candidates.

"We have to turn our court system upside down," former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has said. Gascon, who once served as an assistant chief in the LAPD, announced his candidacy for the DA job two weeks ago.

Two of Lacey's deputies are also running as reformers against their boss.

"Be Smart on Crime instead of Tough on Crime," veteran Deputy DA Richard Ceballos says on his campaign website. "End mass incarceration, especially people of color."

In a video on his website, Deputy DA Joseph Iniguez declares, "the system is failing us."

Like Rossi, Iniguez, 34, also argues his relative youth is an advantage.

"I'm part of the generation that won't wait for permission to take a seat at the table," the site quotes Iniguez as saying. "A generational shift in leadership is needed to broaden our approach to community safety."

THE DA SAYS SHE'S A REFORMER, TOO

"As District Attorney, I go to work every day to pursue justice and protect the peoples' rights," Lacey is quoted as saying on her campaign website. She argues that she's a reformer, too.

Last year, Lacey created the first Mental Health Division to help her prosecutors divert people with mental illness away from jail and has obtained grant funding to train police in how to deal with mentally ill people.

The two-term incumbent established a Conviction Review Unit to look at potential past wrongful convictions. Just this week, Lacey asked a judge to wipe out the conviction of a man her office prosecuted for a series of armed robberies more than a decade ago. The man had spent 10 years behind bars.

It was the first time the five-year-old unit had reviewed a past conviction on its own and determined it was a mistake.

The DA has the backing of much of the political establishment, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and four of the five members of the county Board of Supervisors.

Powerful police unions also have endorsed Lacey, including the LAPD's Police Protective League, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles, which represents rank and file prosecutors in the DA's office.

Lacey is a good employer, said ADDA President Michele Hanisee, who also took aim at the promise by Gascon — perhaps her boss's most formidable opponent — to lock up fewer people.

"I think that Mr. Gascon supports progressive policies without planning how to do so in a way that doesn't jeopardize public safety," Hanisee told KPCC/LAist.

The comment reflects a key question in the campaign: how can L.A. safely imprison fewer people? The outcome of the race could be a defining moment for criminal justice reform in a county that has locked up more people than any other in the nation.

The primary is March 3; if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, there will be a runoff Nov. 3.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Rossi's heritage. LAist regrets the error.