Two Candidates Say LA Is Ready For A Progressive DA

DA candidates Rachel Rossi (left) and George Gascon (right). (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Twenty years ago, electing a progressive district attorney would have been unthinkable.

That's what I've been told by many people across the criminal justice world.

But in 2020, L.A. County has not one, but two reform-minded candidates hoping to become top prosecutor and lead the largest DA's office in the country: former public defender Rachel Rossi and former San Francisco DA George Gascón.

Their platforms echo a sentiment I've heard not just in L.A. County, but throughout the nation: What we're doing now in the criminal justice system just doesn't work.

"It destroys communities, it does not make victims whole, and it costs an awful lot of money," said John Hanusz, a former federal public defender who worked with Rossi.

Rossi and Gascón are trying to unseat incumbent DA Jackie Lacey in the March 3 primary. They're hoping to ride a wave that has seen progressive prosecutors elected from coast-to-coast — from our neighbor-to-the-north San Francisco to Philadelphia.

They're both running on a platform of reducing incarceration, ending cash bail and the death penalty, and creating independent oversight of investigations into officer shootings.

Gascón was recently endorsed by Sen. Kamala Harris and two L.A. members of Congress, Maxine Waters and Tony Cardenas. He and Rossi can each point to endorsements by different grassroots progressive groups.

But most of the political establishment in this deep Blue county has endorsed Lacey, who calls herself a "reasonable reformer."

Still, Gascon and Rossi are hoping their calls for reform can propel them to victory.

'A REAL DRIVER OF MASS INCARCERATION'

With their almost unchecked power to decide who is prosecuted and how, DA's hold an outsized role in the criminal justice system.

"They have been traditionally a real driver of mass incarceration in a way that I think we're only just beginning to appreciate," said Emily Bazelon, the author of "Charged," a book about the progressive prosecutor movement.

That movement is new, Bazelon told me over the phone from her office at Yale, where she's a lecturer.

The national spotlight has been on district attorneys only since 2016, she said.

Gascon and Rossi are running to unseat incumbent DA Jackie Lacey. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

That's due in part to groups like Black Lives Matter, which have focused attention on racial disparities in officer shootings and incarceration rates, Bazelon said.

As that happened, organizations pursuing criminal justice reform saw an opportunity and "started to put forth candidates and fund campaigns for people who are promising to do the job differently," she said.

Those developments led to rising public support "for electing officials who promised to reduce incarceration and increase fairness," Bazelon said.

'I WANTED TO SCREAM'

What's more progressive than electing a public defender as DA?

That's the message of Rachel Rossi's campaign.

As a former public defender, Rossi says she would bring a fresh perspective to the office.


Learn more about all three DA candidates in our Voter's Guide.


Rossi, 36, spent three years working in the L.A. County public defender's office, and then over four years as a federal public defender. She's seen firsthand how over 80% of jail inmates are people of color, and how one-third of them struggle with mental health issues.

"I think the most troubling thing as a public defender is walking into courtrooms every day and only seeing black and brown people locked up and chained at the ankle and at the waist," Rossi told me in an interview at the KPCC studios.

"When everyone in that courtroom is walking in ... every day, and that's all they see, it becomes commonplace," she said. "It becomes the status quo."

Rossi described one day when she came to court to represent a client arrested in a federal sweep of drug dealers.

"It was just rows and rows of just black men from Compton," she said. "And I wanted to scream, and I wanted to say, doesn't this look wrong to someone here? But you can't. You can't really critique these larger-scale problems that you see."

She says as the top prosecutor, she could.

"It's one of the areas in our system where there is almost unbridled discretion to not file a case," Rossi said.

Besides ending cash bail, she says she would decriminalize homelessness and prosecute far fewer misdemeanors.

Rossi has also pledged to meet with the families of all victims of officer shootings, and to use independent prosecutors to prevent bias in major use of force cases.

'HOW CAN THAT BE RIGHT?'

George Gascón is running on a platform of forward movement. After almost nine years as San Francisco D.A, he resigned last fall and moved south to run for L.A DA.

Gascon is a local, though — he emigrated to the area from Cuba when he was just 13, and grew up in Bell. Gascon's law enforcement career began as an LAPD street cop; eventually he rose to assistant chief.

Despite having a very different professional arc from Rossi, Gascon, 65, has a similar critique of the criminal justice system.

"If you believe in the concept that justice should be equal, how can you argue that when our prisons are full of men of color, usually — increasingly, women of color — for behavior that in other communities goes completely untouched by the system, how can that be right?" he said.

Gascón says being Cuban has influenced his political views in a lot of ways.

"Cuba is very safe, but there is a cost to that safety, right?" he said. "You can create a police state, I guess you'll lower crime. But you'll do that at a cost of creating a community that is unhealthy, a community that breaks down families."

'THE CIVIL RIGHTS REFORM OF OUR GENERATION'

Gascon attended last month's Women's March in downtown L.A. Surrounded by signs reading, "Boys will be held accountable" and "This is not consent," he spoke to domestic violence survivors.

"Criminal justice reform is the civil rights reform of our generation," Gascon said.

Standing with her teenage son listening to the candidate, Stacey Golden said she's a supporter.

"I liked him from the get-go," said Golden, a domestic violence survivor and teacher from Carson. She said in the 90s her ex-husband fractured her elbow, and she subsequently clashed with prosecutors who worked for the DA at the time, Gil Garcetti.

"I was told that my ex-husband had a nice personality, you know, from the district attorney," Golden said.

She still remembers the sting of those words. Golden thinks that wouldn't happen with Gascón as DA.

'FELONS, COME ONE, COME ALL!'

The progressive prosecutor platform — putting fewer people in prison — is anathema to many in law enforcement, who say it will lead to more crime.

"Felons, come one, come all!" reads an editorial by Deputy DA Marc Debbaudt in the newsletter of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA), the union representing the prosecutors in Lacey's office.

"What would Los Angeles look like if George Gascon or Rachel Rossi actually became the County's next District Attorney? In a nutshell (and you would have to be a nut to vote for either of them), they will make L.A. the greatest haven for criminals in the nation," Debbaudt wrote.

The union regularly blasts Gascón in particular, pointing to rising property crime in San Francisco during his tenure as DA and his support of reform efforts like Prop. 47 — a law that Gascon co-authored that reduced a lot of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

"The core mission that we do every day is to justly prosecute cases," said ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall. "And I think we're concerned that that core mission is going to be eroded."

He believes progressive prosecutors focus too much on politics and appearances, rather than the law.

"You don't want the political wind to dictate how someone is going to get prosecuted, when someone is going to get prosecuted, and for what they're going to get prosecuted," Siddall said.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League (PPL), the union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers, released an ad earlier this month with an actor portraying Gascon as a con man fleeing San Francisco.

The PPL, the ADDA and the union representing L.A. County deputy sheriffs have all endorsed Lacey.

A Los Angeles Times data analysis shows that property crime surged 49% — mostly driven by car break-ins — during Gascon's tenure as San Francisco DA. He says a change in police leadership brought that number down.

Violent crime increased 15% in San Francisco during that period, according to the Times.

Under Lacey, violent crime increased by 31% in L.A. County between 2011 and 2018, and by 44% in the city of L.A.

During the Jan. 29 DA candidates debate, Lacey said the higher violent crime numbers resulted in part from a change in the way the county tracks sexual assault cases.

'TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE' AND A 'VICTIM-AND-SURVIVOR FIRST APPROACH TO JUSTICE'

Meanwhile, Gason and Rossi are promoting their visions of a progressive district attorney's office.

Gascon recently issued a 76-page white paper, "Transformative Justice: Prosecution Strategies to Reform the Justice System and Enhance Community Safety."

On Tuesday, Rossi released her platform laying out "a victim-and-survivor first approach to justice."