LA Justice: Why The D.A.'s Race Between Lacey And Gascón Matters

D.A. candidate George Gascón and incumbent Jackie Lacey. (Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The race between incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey and challenger George Gascón has been called a referendum on the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.

Boiled down, the race asks: How broken is the system?

Much is at stake. The D.A. prosecutes more than 180,000 criminal defendants a year. That official also exerts enormous influence over criminal justice policy here and in Sacramento. When the LA D.A. talks, people usually listen.

The rage in the streets after the killing of George Floyd focused on the police. But prosecutors have come under new scrutiny too because they act as gatekeepers for the Black and Brown men who flood the criminal justice system, says Miriam Krinsky of the non-partisan group Fair and Just Prosecution.

"They decide if charges will be filed, when charges will be filed, and what charges will be filed," Krinsky tells LAist. They also can have a big influence on judges when it comes time for sentencing.

"They are huge factors in terms of systemic reform," Krinsky says. In recent years, voters have elected reform-minded prosecutors in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco.

And this contest may be more about reform than past D.A. elections, which have focused on which candidate is the toughest on crime. With crime at historic lows across the state, for some the focus is on safely reducing incarceration.

No California county has thrown more people behind bars than Los Angeles. In 2017, L.A. under Lacey sent 608 people per 100,000 to prison, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. By contract, San Francisco under Gascón sent 126 per 100,000. The state average was 487.

Death Penalty Views Highlight Differences

Across the country, people are watching the this D.A.'s race as a bellwether of reform. Lacey is considered the more traditional candidate, Gascón the unconventional.

Lacey, 63, joined the D.A.'s office in 1986 and worked her way up the ranks before voters first elected her in 2012. She is seeking her third term as leader of the nation's largest local prosecutor's office.

Gascón, 66, is a one-time LAPD cop-turned reformer who was chief of police in San Francisco before becoming that city's D.A. — a post he resigned last year to run in L.A.

Gascón was born in Cuba but grew up in Cudahy in South East L.A, traditionally one of the landing spots for Latino immigrants. Lacey was born and raised in South L.A.'s historically black Crenshaw District.

To begin to understand their differences, it's useful to look at their views on the death penalty. It's not the biggest issue in the contest, but the contrast is instructive.

Lacey says people who commit heinous crimes deserve it — serial murderers and people who torture and kill children. She's continued to seek capital punishment even after Governor Newsom placed a moratorium on it last year.

Gascón opposes capital punishment on moral grounds. But he also says using it risks killing someone who is innocent because the justice system has too many flaws.

It's an example of how Lacey has greater faith in the system and its appeals processes than Gascón.

The Innocence Project estimates one percent of people in U.S. prisons are falsely convicted. That would mean 1,000 people in California prisons and seven people on death row were falsely convicted. Lacey has said those numbers are inaccurate.

Their positions on the death penalty also highlight their views on how racial disparties play out in the justice system.

Gascón argues the death penalty is disproportionaly sought for non-Whites. He points to several studies, including one by the ACLU, that found all but one of 23 people for whom Lacey's office successfully argued for death were not White — 13 Latino, 8 Black, and one Asian.

Lacey doesn't dispute the numbers, but maintains her office acted without regard to race. She also supports the death penalty even though L.A. voters have twice voted it down. This fits a pattern.

The Will of the Voters

Lacey opposed Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana. Voters approved it. She opposed Proposition 57, which increased parole opportunities for people convicted of non-violent crimes. Voters approved it. Lacey worried about the effect of those two measures on public safety.

Gascón supported the measures, in part as efforts to address over-incarceration. They were not the only times he favored relaxing criminal penalties.

Perhaps the biggest line of demarcation between Lacey and Gascón may be Proposition 47, the 2014 landmark measure that reclassified certain lower-level drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors. It allowed more than 10,000 state prison inmates to apply for early release, and created a fund to help crime victims and formerly incarcerated people.

That fund now runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars and is distributed to communities around the state.

Gascón co-authored the measure, which — more than anything else — has secured his status as the "godfather of progressive prosecutors," as some supporters call him.

"We need to turn our court system upside down," Gascón has said, emphasizing he's not the man who once patrolled the streets of L.A. in a black-and-white.

Evolving Views

In one anecdote, Gascón recalls jogging with his teenage daughter and listening in shock at how her friends smoked pot. Still a cop at the time, he wondered why the police didn't catch them. Then he realized the LAPD only ran undercover operations at high schools in low income neighborhoods where a lot of non-white students attended, he says.

"The difference between Lacey and I, is that I continue to learn and evolve," Gascón said during a debate co-sponsored by KPCC and The Los Angeles Times.

Lacey insists her views have changed over the years. For instance, she supported easing draconian penalties imposed under California's Three Strikes law. But she argues Gascón has gone too far.

"He wants to leave residents helpless," Lacey countered, by "experimenting with their safety."

Lacey worried Proposition 47 would increase crime by allowing more criminals onto the streets, and take away tools that prosecutors use to get them off the streets. One study found Prop 47 was linked to an increase in larceny by 9% — specifically shoplifting and car break-ins. But another study found no link between the measure and an increase in crime.

In San Francisco, car break-ins soared while Gascón was D.A., causing city leaders and the police union to blame him for supporting f Prop 47 and charges he failed to aggressively prosecute the crime. Gascón has said it was the police department's fault for failing to catch the thieves.

It's only one reason police unions loathe Gascon.

Police Unions Mount Massive Campaign

The head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association minced no words when Gascón announced his retirement as district attorney there.

"Good riddance," said Tony Montoya. "We are happy he will be leaving San Francisco, but feel horrible that he is taking his record of failure to an even larger county where he can cause even more harm to public safety."

Gascón and the union had locked horns on numerous occasions, most notably in 2015 when a group of police officers were found to have texted racial and homophobic messages to each other.

Gascón convened a blue ribbon commission that found a problem with police officer attitudes toward minority groups. Perhaps more important, it also found a police department virtually controlled by the officers' union, where whistleblowers faced retaliation. It was a blockbuster report that outraged the union, which denied the accusations.

Police unions see Gascón, who was once assistant chief of the LAPD, as a turncoat cop who is now soft on crime.

Those unions include LAPD officers, L.A. Sheriff's deputies and Long Beach police officers, who are part of a $4.5 million campaign to stop Gascón. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has poured in more than $1 million. The union that represents the tiny Corona Police Department has chipped in $1,000.

Differing Views on Police Shootings

The lavish spending against a man who once wore the uniform is prompted by more than Gascón's desire to change a system in which police unions are so heavily invested.

Gascón has suggested he'd like to prosecute more officers involved in shootings. In fact, he has promised to re-open four fatal police shootings of unarmed men in which Lacey decided the officers acted legally:

  • Brendan Glenn, 29, an unarmed homeless black man fatally shot by an LAPD officer in Venice in 2015. You can read the DA's declination letter here.
  • Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, 34, an unarmed man fatally shot by Gardena police officers in 2013. The D.A.'s declination letter is not posted online, but you can watch a video of the shooting here.
  • Hector Morejon, 19, an unarmed man who was fatally shot by Long Beach police in 2015. You can read the D.A.'s declination letter here.
  • Christopher Deandre Mitchell, 23, who Torrance police say was in possession of an air rifle when they fatally shot him in 2018. You can read the D.A.'s declination letter here.

Lacey calls Gascón's pledge a "political stunt" in a year when police shootings have garnered unprecedented attention. She also says re-opening those cases would threaten the credibility of the D.A.'s office because officers in the future won't know if they can rely on a determination that their shooting was legal.

But Gascón argues that Lacey has been too deferential to cops who shoot, pointing out that she's filed charges against just one officer of the more than 600 who have used deadly force during her eight years in office.

Lacey says she follows the law, which gives police wide leeway to use deadly force. She also points out that Gascón filed charges against none of the 62 officers involved in shootings during his nearly nine years as D.A. in San Francisco — a record that drew sharp criticism from activists there. Gascon says none of those involved unarmed suspects.

Mentally Ill Defendants

When it comes to reforming the criminal justice system, Lacey has been most interested in efforts to divert mentally ill people, the homeless and veterans out of jails and into care facilities. Over about five years, her office has helped steer more than 4,000 people from behind bars, according to the D.A.

In February of last year, she created the nation's first-ever Mental Health Division within a local prosecutor's office. In doing so, she said she told her prosecutors to consider a defendant's mental health when deciding if they should be diverted from jail.

"I am encouraging my lawyers to make courageous decisions and do the right thing," Lacey said at the time, "...and help another human being in crisis."

But a Rand study released in January found the D.A. was falling far short of the number of mentally ill inmates who could safely be moved into community care. It found 61 percent — or 3,368 inmates at the time — qualified at any given time.

Lacey believes many of those inmates still belong in locked facilities, and says there are too few jail alternatives in Los Angeles County: "Diversion has been slow not because the D.A. isn't willing to do it," she told LAist. "It's because we need safe places to divert people to."

Gascón says Lacey and her prosecutors too narrowly define who can be diverted, and he points to the Rand research as evidence.

Racial Tension in the Campaign

Gascón touts, as a top priority, addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He likes to say one of the benefits of Prop. 47 was that it closed such disparities. The Black-White arrest rate gap has narrowed by nearly 6% under Prop. 47, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

And last year, just before leaving San Francisco, Gascón launched a pilot program developed by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab that sought to remove racial bias when prosecutors decide how to charge someone.

But he's gone beyond touting his own efforts on the issue. He has said Lacey, the first woman and first African American D.A. in Los Angeles, has done little to address the problem.

"Jackie Lacey, but for the color of her skin and her gender, has been horrendous for the African American community," Gascón said.

Lacey bristled at the comment.

"Look, I'm an African American woman from the Crenshaw District," she countered. "I have experienced racism first-hand more so than anybody who wants to criticize me who isn't black."

Among other things, Lacey touts the most diverse top management ever seen inside the DA's office.

But a recent legal settlement tainted her image as racial trailblazer. Earlier this month, the county agreed to pay $950,000 to settle a claim by a black senior investigator that she was sexually harassed and racially discriminated against by a white supervisor.

Lacey did not comment about the settlement.

It's hard to tell whether there is a broader problem inside the D.A.'s office, which includes 1,000 attorneys, 300 investigators, and 800 support staff.

That's because Lacey has blocked efforts by the Los Angeles Times to obtain records pertaining to sexual harassment and misconduct in her office. On Oct. 13, the Times asked a judge to order disclosure of the records.

"The County appears to be attempting to run the clock out on the upcoming election for district attorney in an effort to deny the public relevant information about the District Attorney's management of complaints by employees in her office," The Times wrote in its petition.

A spokesman for Lacey would not comment on the petition.

Gascon has faced his own legal troubles with employees. Henry McKenzie, one of his DA investigators in San Francisco, sued the city in 2018, claiming Gascon had retaliated against him for reporting that Gascon allegedly carried a handgun on commercial flights, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

McKenzie was among a group of investigators who made the claim to the Transportation Security Administration. He later was placed on a list of investigators prosecutors must report are unreliable in criminal proceedings, and was eventually fired. A Gascon spokesman told the Chronicle that McKenzie falsified public documents.

McKenzie told the paper the accusations are false and harmed his professional reputation. He said they also caused "immeasurable stress" to his family.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed to pay McKenzie $400,000 to settle his lawsuit, without admitting Gascon did anything wrong.

Big Money Flows for Gascón Too

Liberal mega-donors from around the country have flocked to Gascón. Just eight people, including New York-based George Soros, founder of the Open Society Foundations, who has long sought to reform what he sees as a racist criminal justice system, are spending more than $5 million to get Gascón elected.

Frontline prosecutors in L.A. don't like what they see in the challenger. The historically conservative Association of Deputy District Attorneys points out Gascón has never tried a case - unlike Lacey, who was once regularly in the courtroom — and wonders if he's qualified for the job. The L.A. D.A.'s office is more than four times the size of San Francisco's and deals with a far larger number — and greater volume of serious — crimes over a much larger area.

Because Gascón is out of step with many in law enforcement, Lacey has argued he would be unable to effectively lead the D.A.'s office, which deals with every police agency in the county.

Gascón wears the establishment's opposition as a badge of honor and says he would forge respectful relationships if elected.

Defunding the D.A.

The candidates' differing views play out in their positions on Measure J on the Nov. 3 ballot, which would require the county to spend at least 10% of its general fund on "alternatives to incarceration" and other programs to help people stay out of jail.

Gascón says it's time for such a shift in funding, and he would be comfortable with some of the money coming out of the D.A.'s office. Lacey says her office spends its budget efficiently, and any funding reduction would jeopardize progress on such efforts as examining potential wrongful convictions.

Even though both are Democrats, the L.A. County Democratic Party has endorsed Gascón. He also enjoys the support of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Vice Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who preceded him as D.A. in San Francisco.

Lacey's main support comes from prosecutors and police unions around the state, but she also has the backing of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the National Women's Political Caucus of L.A. County, and four of five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. For supervisors, she is seen as a known quantity, a steady hand.

But while reform is in the air this year, Gascón faces an uphill battle, says Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

"It's very difficult to beat an incumbent," said Guerra, "and especially one who is a Democrat in a heavily Democratic city and who is a woman who is African American."

In any case, if you pull the lens back, it's hard to overstate what this election may mean to the still nascent criminal justice reform movement in Los Angeles — indeed, in America, Guerra said:

"It will either give tremendous momentum to this movement or it will pause the movement for a while."

This story was updated on Nov. 2, 2020 to include the information about Henry McKenzie's lawsuit.

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