The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This race could be a bellwether for the future of prosecution

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and her two challengers, former San Francisco district attorney George Gascón and former public defender Rachel Rossi, at a debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 29. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
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The Democratic primary for Los Angeles district attorney bears close watching as a bellwether of the future shape of federal, state and local criminal prosecution.

In recent years, an improbable reform movement has taken root in several big cities across the United States. Several important prosecutors’ elections — traditionally contests between candidates jockeying to outflank one another with tough-on-crime agendas — have put into office reformers dedicated to radical overhauls of conventional prosecutorial functions.

Self-identified reform DAs are now at the helm of offices in a range of large metropolitan jurisdictions, including Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Houston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Seattle. These district attorneys were elected on platforms calling for substantial reductions in the prosecutions of certain low-level crimes, especially drug-related ones; elimination or reduction of cash bail; vigilant investigation and prosecution of police misconduct; reducing incarceration rates; and partnering with the community to address social issues such as mental health and the lack of affordable housing.

The upcoming DA’s election in Los Angeles — which has the largest prosecutors’ office and jail system in the country — is being fought on just this fault line between law-enforcement reformers and traditionalists, and its outcome is sure to be hailed as a huge victory for one side or the other, particularly if the reform candidate, George Gascón, unseats the current two-term DA, Jackie Lacey.

The two, along with former public defender Rachel Rossi, another reformer, square off in the primary Tuesday. If no candidate wins a majority, the two highest finishers will proceed to a runoff.

Lacey has come to wear the anti-reformers’ mantle reluctantly and somewhat by happenstance, and somewhat by outsize focus on her handling of a few cases. When she came into office in 2012 as the first African American female DA in Los Angeles history, she had a reputation as a cautious progressive. Now she finds herself regularly harangued in public for her supposed embrace of “tough on crime” policies.

Most notably, her campaign has been waylaid by racial politics. Even before the campaign, Black Lives Matter activists were mounting public demonstrations against Lacey, who first infuriated the group with her slow and tepid response to allegations against Ed Buck, a Democratic operative accused in the deaths of two black men in a drugs-and-sex scandal. She further alienated the group by declining in a few cases to charge police officers involved in fatal shootings. Last spring, she was knocked to the ground by a group of protesters carrying signs with slogans such as “Jackie Lacey has blood on her hands.”

Additionally, while Lacey has championed certain reforms, most notably an alternative sentencing program for mentally ill defendants, she has opposed others, including bail reform. She also continues to file death-penalty cases, alone among the big California cities, and she regularly employs legal tools to increase the sentences of gang members, who are involved in more than half of the city’s homicides.

Gascón, widely seen as the only candidate with a chance to defeat Lacey, is a former San Francisco district attorney and, early in his career, LAPD officer who moved back down to Los Angeles to challenge Lacey.

The race has generated huge attention throughout the state. The Los Angeles Times called it “most important item before voters in 2020” other than the presidency. Millions have poured into political action committees on both sides. Lacey garnered the incumbent’s early harvest of endorsements, including from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff. But Gascón has recently claimed the biggest prizes, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris and the endorsement of the LA Times.

To top it all off, the race is situated at the center of a bitter debate between reformers across the country and the Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General William P. Barr. Last month, speaking before the Major County Sheriffs of America, Barr took dead aim at “‘social justice’ reformers” he accused of making U.S. cities more dangerous.

In response, 41 reform prosecutors fired off a blistering letter to Barr that argued his traditional “tough on crime” approach “failed to make our communities safe and punished poverty, mental illness or addiction.” They added, “We will not cater to the powerful and wealthy while plundering the poor and communities of color.”

Keep in mind that well over 90 percent of criminal cases are brought in state and local courts. If Lacey can beat back Gascón’s insurgent campaign, it will be a major brake on the criminal-justice reform movement nationally. Conversely, a Gascón takeover of the largest prosecutors’ office in the county would mark a historic shift and the ascendancy of the reform agenda in urban America. The ripple effects could potentially alter the face of law enforcement — from everyday traffic stops to prosecutions for serious crimes — in large and small communities across the country.

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