Friday, November 4, 2011
Large Crowd, Few Fireworks Mark District Attorney Forum
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The post-Steve Cooley District Attorney’s Office faces challenges, in particular because of the state’s criminal justice realignment plan, six candidates to succeed the longtime chief prosecutor said yesterday.
But each of the six said he or she had the ideas and experience to meet those challenges.
The forum, sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County with assistance from 11 other groups, brought together Deputy District Attorneys Bobby Grace, Steve Ipsen, Alan Jackson, and Danette Meyers; Chief Deputy District Attorney Jackie Lacey, and Deputy District Attorney Mario Trujillo.
The event drew about 300 people to the auditorium of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
Sources said Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who has labeled his candidacy “exploratory,” was invited but did not attend. Deputy District Attorney Marcus Musante, who entered the race just last week, asked to be included but could not be accommodated because the event had already been planned for the field of six, an APABA board member said.
Musante did, however, observe the proceedings from a front-row seat.
The format featured brief opening statements by the candidates, who were seated, and who spoke, in alphabetical order. The candidates then took turns answering questions written by audience members on index cards and read by moderator Edmond Sung, the president-elect of APABA.
Given those constraints, the candidates remained largely civil and complimentary towards one another. But some differences between them did emerge.
Grace emphasized his 23 years of experience, including prosecution of some of the county’s most violent felons, while Ipsen pointed out he has been a prosecutor for 25 years.
The former Association of Deputy District Attorneys president also emphasized his involvement with victim’s rights groups. But while he promised to be a “victim’s advocate first,” he bemoaned the lack of employment for probationers and promised to actively seek alternatives to incarceration for first-time and low-level offenders.
Jackson said his priorities would be public corruption, gang crime, high-tech crime, and juvenile crime.
Lacey stressed her 10 years as part of the office’s top management, saying she had been part of “every major decision” made in the office during that time. She said she was the right person to take on the impending “disaster” of realignment—under which thousands of felons serving shorter sentences will be sent to local jails rather than to state prison—and said she would “make Sacramento do the right thing and protect our communities.”
Meyers embraced the mantle of reform, and made clear that she was dissatisfied with current leadership, although she offered little in the way of specifics. Having prosecuted six capital cases, four of them resulting in death sentences, “I know a death penalty case when I see one,” suggesting that the capital case committee that now decides when to seek the maximum sentence doesn’t always make the right call.
She also noted the presence of a number of deputy district attorneys in the room and promised to change the way the office itself is run. There would, she said, be “no more retaliation” and a fairer approach to promotions, she said.
“You might not like me, but you will respect me,” she said emphatically.
Trujillo presented himself as the least conventional candidate in the race, promising to do battle with a system that he said is “addicted to incarceration.”
The first question asked during the Q-and-A period was about the office’s current Three-Strikes policy. That policy, a cornerstone of Cooley’s campaign when he unseated Gil Garcetti in 2000, provides that when the potential third “strike” is not a serious or violent crime, or a significant drug crime, the case will be filed as a second, rather than a third, strike unless a supervisory deputy determines otherwise.
Most of the candidates endorsed the policy, but Ipsen attacked it as “grossly unfair” and said he would allow the assigned deputy to “make the decision in court.” Meyers said she generally supports the policy but would make some changes.
All of the candidates expressed support for the death penalty, but Trujillo qualified his by calling the current system “dysfunctional” and said voters should be called upon either to abolish it or to approve higher taxes to pay for it, in particular by paying for more capital appeals attorneys.
Meyers complained that prosecutors who have never tried a capital case are placed on the capital case committee. Lacey defended the committee, saying it only calls for the death sentence in “the most serious and violent cases.”
Ipsen supported a reform proposal, which was endorsed by all of the California Supreme Court’s justices in 2007 but has gone nowhere in the Legislature, to allow the high court to transfer capital appeals to the Court of Appeal, with the Supreme Court retaining the power of review.
On realignment, Lacey said the county would be ill-prepared to deal with it. “It’s too fast, too soon,” she said, while Jackson agreed. Even felons serving shorter sentences, he argued, wouldn’t be incarcerated if there were a safe alternative.
“You have to earn your way to state prison,” he told the audience.
Trujillo said the real problem is that while the new setup includes opportunities for alternative sentencing, most of the money that’s been appropriated to implement it will go to the sheriff, who will use it to “arrest and incarcerate more people,” creating more cases for the district attorney.
Lacey complained that it will be the sheriff, and not the courts, who will decide what type of facility the defendant is incarcerated at.
Ipsen dissented from the consensus, saying it was “a lie to blame Sacramento” at a time when “crime is going down, but L.A. County is sending more people to prison.”
Asked their views on medical marijuana, Ipsen said it would be “my lowest priority,” while Trujillo predicted that the drug itself would be legalized “during our lifetime,” although as a parent of two teenagers “I’m not ready for it.”
AS for marijuana prosecutions in general, he said, “I will no longer participate in something that funds the gangs and the cartels.”
Lacey declared her support for California’s Compassionate Use Act, enacted by Proposition 215,” but said that a “criminal element” is illegally operating marijuana dispensaries for profit.
Jackson said he also supports medical marijuana, but within the confines of the law.” Grace said the cities, not the district attorney, should have primary responsibility for enforcement.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company