LA County District Attorney: Former San Francisco DA Gascón Takes On Current DA Lacey

Published Sep 23, 2020

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office is the largest prosecutor's office in the United States. The DA oversees a staff of roughly 1,000 lawyers, 300 investigators, and 800 support staff.

The office prosecutes everything from misdemeanors (such as shoplifting and low-level drug offenses) to felonies (including rape and murder) in an area covering more than 4,000 square miles -- from the Antelope Valley to Long Beach and from Pomona to Malibu.

This nonpartisan race has attracted national attention, because it's the latest -- and largest -- battleground in a national push to get more liberal candidates elected as district attorneys. It's taken on more importance amid the raging debate over police killings and calls for DAs to prosecute more cops.

To hear from the candidates in their own words, you can watch the debate co-sponsored by KPCC/LAist and the L.A. Times below, followed by a handy guide that includes their positions on certain issues, their key endorsements, and more.


Incumbent D.A. Jackie Lacey, 62, is a career prosecutor. She joined the L.A. District Attorney's office as a prosecutor in 1986 and, over the years, rose through the ranks. Along the way she headed the major crimes and major narcotics units, and the Central Operations Bureau. Then-DA Steve Cooley wanted Lacey to succeed him and, in 2011, he gave her a big assist, promoting her to the number two position in the department. The next year, she was elected DA and was re-elected in 2016. She is the first woman and the first African American DA in L.A. County.

Lacey calls herself a "reasonable reformer." She touts her establishment of a mental health division in her office to work on diverting people with mental health issues away from jail. Lacey also set up a Conviction Review Unit to assess claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence.

RELATED: DA Jackie Lacey Says Her Husband's Sorry For Pulling Gun On Protesters

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Cuban-born George Gascón, 65, was a career police officer before becoming a prosecutor. He joined the LAPD in 1978 after a stint in the Army and, outside of a five-year hiatus as a car salesman, he spent more than 20 years on the force, rising to assistant chief. In 2006 he became police chief of Mesa, Arizona, and in 2009 chief of the San Francisco Police Department. In 2011, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed him San Francisco's district attorney. Gascón was elected to the post later that year and was re-elected in 2015. He stepped down last fall to run for DA in Los Angeles.

Gascón calls himself the true reformer in the race and argues that, under Lacey, the DA's office "has lost its ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance." He promises to lock up fewer people than the incumbent.

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Death penalty: Lacey is a more traditional prosecutor than Gascón. And few issues reflect that more than capital punishment. Lacey strongly supports the death penalty and has sought it in cases that she considers egregious. She calls it an "appropriate punishment" for some crimes. Gascón calls the death penalty morally wrong and racially biased, and warns that using it risks executing innocent people.

Criminal justice reform: One litmus test for how a prosecutor views the criminal justice system is their stance on the landmark 2014 voter-approved Proposition 47, which reduced some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors. Gascón co-authored the measure, saying too many people -- especially men of color -- were being imprisoned for low-level crimes. Lacey opposed it, arguing it would lead to an uptick in property crime. Lacey says it's important to be aware of factors such as racial and income disparities, but adds, "people make bad decisions."


Bail reform: One of the big questions in the criminal justice system currently is whether to change the bail system. Many believe it's not fair to decide to release someone from jail based solely on whether they can afford bail. That's why Gascón calls for the outright abolition of cash bail. Lacey supports bail reform, but not its outright elimination. She supports the state law that would do away with cash bail in most situations, while giving judges the opportunity to impose it in cases involving high-level misdemeanors or low-level felonies. (The law is on hold pending the fate of Prop 25 on the November ballot.)

Police shootings: Black Lives Matter and other groups have called on prosecutors to more often file criminal charges against police officers who shoot people. During Lacey's eight years in office, she has filed charges in one case in which an officer fatally shot a civilian. She has defended her record on the issue, noting it's "very, very difficult" to successfully prosecute law enforcement officers for shootings, because juries are reluctant to convict them. But Gascón declined to press charges against a single officer involved in a shooting in San Francisco during his nearly nine years as DA there. He seeks to distinguish himself from Lacey by saying he would be willing to consider some sort of independent special prosecutor in such cases.