Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Los Angeles County District Attorney
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Jackie Lacey has served the County of Los Angeles ably as its district attorney since 2012. The office has been run, as it had by her immediate predecessor, in an admirably smooth and efficient manner. There has been no dissension among the troops, no clashes with the Board of Supervisors or other governmental agencies, no humiliating losses, indeed nothing even approaching a scandal.
Eight years ago, we endorsed her opponent, observing that Lacey lacked “fire in the belly.” We erred. As we acknowledged in honoring her as a 2014 “Person of the Year,” gastric distress is not a requirement for service as a district attorney. Lacey is a quiet, but effective leader, deftly guiding operations of a huge office.
All is well in the District Attorney’s Office, and Lacey manifestly deserves election to another four-year term.
OREOVER, THE PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTY deserve someone better than either of her two opponents. Chief among them is George Gascón, a carpetbagger from San Francisco. There, he served as district attorney, resigning from his post last year in order to seek the office held by Lacey.
Gascón has never tried a case.
Lacey, by contrast, is a career prosecutor; she can direct her troops with skill because she knows what works, and what doesn’t, in a courtroom—and what is proper to present, and what isn’t.
The challenger from up north supported the death penalty when it was popular. He opposes it now—after all, the era has ended during which voters favored “tough on crime” stances.
As district attorney of San Francisco, he had a policy against prosecuting first-time DUI offenders—though they are, of course, potential first-time killers of pedestrians or fellow motorists. The message he sent was: if you haven’t incurred a DUI conviction, you have, like a dog, “one free bite”; you’re safe to drive while intoxicated. Safe, that is, from the prospect of a prosecution. Gascón in effect told those at a bar or a cocktail party pondering whether to stop drinking or call a cab: “Bottoms up! Then, off you go, at the wheel.”
Some criminal defendants have faced gang allegations though they have not actually been gang members, he says, vowing that if he becomes DA of Los Angeles County, he’ll never seek an enhancement based on a gang affiliation. The Legislature has recognized the grave danger posed by gang violence; in Los Angeles County, 53 percent of the murders and manslaughters involve gangs. Although the cause of public safety commands a discouragement of gang membership, Gascón pledges a refusal to participate in that undertaking.
H, YES. THERE’S A THIRD CANDIDATE in the race: Rachel Rossi. She, unlike Gascón, has tried cases, though as a government criminal defense lawyer. The fact that she has no experience in a prosecutorial office is, as we view it, significant, though perhaps not determinative.
It would, however, take someone with attributes that are quite special to warrant consideration for heading a massive prosecutorial office, one of the largest on the globe, who has never been on the prosecution’s side of a case and, added to that, has never held a significant managerial position.
Rossi does not possess such attributes.
We pause to note that news reports incessantly refer to her as a former “public defender.” She isn’t. During the period of 2011-2014, she was a deputy public defender in Los Angeles County for two years, then a deputy alternate public defender for this county. Rossi was next an deputy federal public defender for the Central District of California from 2014-2019.
Yet, her ballot designation is “Public Defender, Federal.” While Judge Mitchell Beckloff is a highly regarded and adept member of the Los Angeles Superior Court, we believe that he plainly erred in allowing that description, in response to a writ challenge.
Anyway, if Rossi’s candidacy has any effect on the election, it will be to cause a run-off between Lacey and Gascón.
ASCÓN. HE’S A CHARLATAN who calls for reforms which Lacey has already instituted.
One example: he asserts that “[c]orrectional facilities are fundamentally places of punishment and control, not treatment and rehabilitation.” The candidate points to the need for diversion programs and pledges that “if elected,” he would have law enforcement “work hand in hand with public health officials” to avoid the prosecution and the jailing of persons with mental health problems—who often “have a co-occurring substance use disorder”—and require treatment. He cites successful efforts in Seattle to meet such needs.
Notably, Gascón does not cite successful efforts in San Francisco while he was DA there. It must be assumed that if he had guided any such activities, he would be drawing attention to them. Gascón is decidedly not averse to boasting of his accomplishments.
And he does not bother to acknowledge what has been done at promoting, significantly, the goals he espouses in a locality in California.
Where? The County of Los Angeles.
In 2013, in her first year in office, Lacey formed what would become the Los Angeles County Mental Health Advisory Board. Those involved in mental health programs and participants in the criminal justice system joined efforts. Lacey has chaired and guided that board.
It declared on May 6, 2014:
“Diversion can address the untreated mental illness and substance abuse that is often the root cause of crime. By providing appropriate mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and job readiness training, as well as permanent supportive housing when it is needed, the mentally ill are stabilized and less likely to commit future crimes.”
On Aug. 4, 2015, the board issued a “A Blueprint for Change,” a comprehensive report. It begins:
“In Los Angeles County, mentally ill offenders may be incarcerated in the county jail for significant periods of time. Many of these offenders also suffer from co-occurring substance abuse disorders and chronic homelessness. For lower-level crimes, when mental health treatment can appropriately take place somewhere other than the jail while preserving the safety of the public, continued incarceration may not serve the interests of justice. The jail environment is not conducive to the treatment of mental illness.”
And it hasn’t just been talk.
Los Angeles Magazine, in a Jan. 6 article, says of Lacey:
“Her signature reformist accomplishment as DA has been creating a pathway for nonviolent offenders to get treated for mental illness. As founder and chair of the Criminal Justice Mental Health Project for Los Angeles County, she secured $150 million in emergency mental health funding from the county. The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department already had special programs training officers in how to de-escalate aggressive encounters with people experiencing a mental health crisis. But Lacey launched similar programs for 45 other police agencies under the DA’s jurisdiction, and her office has trained more than 2,000 cops in de-escalation techniques.”
(The article goes on to note that Lacey “also made unconscious racial bias training obligatory for attorneys and investigators in her office and created the conviction review unit, which has revisited 1,300 cases and released three men from prison, two of whom were serving life sentences.”
On Jan. 23, 2019, Lacey inaugurated the Mental Health Division of her office—the first in California, perhaps in the nation.
“Our goal is to protect the public and to assist people in getting the mental health and other services they need to be productive members of our community,” she said. “We also want to make sure that jails and prisons are reserved for the most serious and violent offenders.”
“With this policy, I am encouraging my lawyers to make courageous decisions and do the right thing. We must make informed decisions to ensure public safety and help another human being in crisis.”
Gascón is telling voters that he would fix things by instituting programs that are already in place.
And so far as his expressing a concern for treating those with drug addiction, it should be borne in mind that he is an architect of Proposition 47—the so-called “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”— which eliminated mandatory drug treatment for persons in possession of illicit drugs.
ASCÓN IS A POLITICO who would predictably use the Office of District Attorney as a base for furthering his quest for higher posts.
Here’s the logo used on Gascón’s websites, campaign buttons, bumper stickers, lawn signs, coffee mugs, tote bags, and t-shirts:
The accented letter “O” and the word “Democrat” are in bright green while the other letters are dark blue where a white background is used or are white if there’s a blue background.
The political party is emphasized less there than in this logo used on Gascón’s website until late Saturday:
Hold on. The office for which Gascón is presently running is a non-partisan one.
It is apparent that Gascón, a man whose ambition exceeds his aptitude, is striving even now to round up support for his next race, that is, one for a partisan political post.
His reference to his party is not only out of place in a campaign for a county office but is misleading, carrying the implication that the incumbent he’s challenging—who is, in fact, a lifelong Democrat—is a member of a different political party. This ruse does matter; of the 4.3 million registered voters in Los Angeles County, 49.7 percent are Democrats, 16.7 per cent are Republicans, with the balance being members of one of four minor parties or independents.
Art. II, §6(a) of the state Constitution provides: “All…county…offices…shall be nonpartisan.” Gascón seeks to skirt that constitutional command by wrapping himself in the Democratic banner and seeking to fool Democrats into perceiving him as the candidate of their party in a partisan contest.
UDGES AND BAR ORGANIZATIONS speak often of the need for “judicial independence.” Indeed, judges must be free to render decisions without concern that they will be subjected, potentially, to repudiation at the polls if the results they reach, after making good-faith applications of the facts to the law, are displeasing.
No less essential to the proper functioning of the justice system is prosecutorial independence. DAs must be able to prosecute—or not to prosecute, where a solid basis for a conviction is lacking—without fear of voter vengeance.
A district attorney should never, out of concern for his or her political welfare, fail to bring a warranted prosecution against a person based on the power or popularity of that person, nor pursue charges against someone who is disfavored, or even despised, where the action is not legally supportable.
On May 5, 2016, Brendon Glenn, a homeless panhandler, was fatally shot near the Venice boardwalk by a then-Los Angeles police officer, Clifford Proctor. The officer’s partner was present. Proctor maintained that he acted when he saw Glenn grab the partner’s holster. Then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck didn’t believe Proctor, and publicly called upon Lacey to prosecute the officer for manslaughter.
Lacey declined. Why? Is it because she approves of the police shooting unarmed persons? Hardly.
On March 8, 2018, the district attorney announced that no charges would be filed, explaining—following her review of a highly detailed 83-page report by the Justice System Integrity Division:
“After an independent and thorough review of all the evidence in this case, we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Proctor did not act within the law.”
Lacey also said:
“Filing decisions must be based on the evidence and the law. Every suspect deserves an independent review of the evidence to determine whether criminal charges will be filed. This is no different for police officers.
“Prosecutors cannot ethically charge a person with a crime, if they do not believe a jury would convict the person of that crime. This basic tenet of criminal law requires us to consider the suspect’s possible defenses against those charges, as we did in this case.
“Most importantly, it serves to protect each and every one of us from criminal filings that are not firmly grounded in the evidence and the law but may be the result of political pressures. Accordingly, I made this decision based on what I considered to be insufficient evidence in this case to charge Officer Proctor with a crime.”
The district attorney relied on a meticulous report which concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to prove that Officer Clifford Proctor acted unlawfully in self-defense and in defense of others when he used deadly force against Brendon Glenn.” She had the power, of course, to order a prosecution notwithstanding the view of the investigating unit. But if she had done so—absent any basis for rejecting the careful analysis of the evidence that was provided—she would have behaved in blatant derogation of what the First District Court of Appeal has referred to as “the prosecutor’s overriding ethical duty to see that justice is done.”
Lacey would have breached her obligation as a lawyer under Business & Professions Code §6068(c) “[t]o counsel or maintain those actions, proceedings, or defenses only as appear to him or her legal or just.” Too, she would have run afoul of rule 5–110(a) of the California Rules of Professional Conduct (now rule 3.8(a)) which provides that a prosecutor may “not institute or continue to prosecute a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.”
Moreover, to have bowed to community pressure for the sake of her personal political welfare, to have prosecuted despite the lack of an ability to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, would have been cowardly, self-serving, and unconscionable. Fortunately, our district attorney is not the sort of person who would even contemplate such conduct.
While there are those who denigrate Lacey based on her decision not to prosecute Proctor, it might well be suspected that few of them have examined the 83-page report (which can be downloaded from the DA’s website), let alone lent objective consideration to it.
NY MAJOR PUBLIC OFFICIAL is a three-dimensional figure, observed by the public from all sides. As a newspaper, we are able to gage Lacey’s nature from a particular vantage point, as are other news outlets that receive her office’s emailed press releases (which are publicly available on the office website).
Unlike all too many other government officials, Lacey is not the subject of a continual publicity campaign by her office. Her press releases contain information, not puffery, not a lionizing of Lacey. Her approach is in marked contrast to that of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra; anything the office accomplishes is personalized as an attainment of Becerra.
One of Lacey’s predecessors in recent years, Ira Reiner, constantly sought the spotlight, prompting a former deputy district attorney, and legend in the office, Lea D’Agostino, to comment in recent years that Reiner “never saw a camera he didn’t like.”
Here is the first sentence of a press release from yesterday:
“A former Los Angeles Unified School District teacher assistant was sentenced today to eight years in state prison for sexually abusing six students, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced.”
From last week:
•“An El Monte man was charged today with killing a 64-year-old woman who was one of his roommates, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced.”
•“A Bellflower man has entered a no contest plea for sexually assaulting his then-girlfriend’s young sister, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced.”
While the information these press releases convey as to particular prosecutions has no bearing on the current election contest, what is relevant is what the releases do not contain: any reference to Lacey.
Compare that to typical releases from the San Francisco District Attorney’s office last summer, before Gascón resigned:
•“Today, District Attorney George Gascón announced that Marta Betancur, age 64, of Antioch, has been charged in San Francisco Superior Court with six felonies relating to Insurance Fraud and Attempted Perjury.”
•“Today, District Attorney George Gascón announced that Maher Soliman, age 66, of San Francisco, CA, was charged with fraud and extortion for falsely holding himself out as an attorney and for threatening to accuse a victim of various crimes unless the victim paid him thousands of dollars.”
If Gascón were elected district attorney of Los Angeles County, there is no doubt, given his readily perceived propensities, that he would convert the DA’s information office into a publicity mill, publicizing himself.
OST SIGNIFICANTLY, THERE WOULD be in charge of the county’s prosecution agency an overly ambitious man bereft of qualifications for the post under whose stewardship operations of the office would surely lag, and whose overriding objective would predictably be his self-advancement.
But this should not come to pass.
Los Angeles County now has a district attorney who is honorable and proficient. She is running for reelection.
There are no rational bases, in our view, to cast ballots in this race other than for Jackie Lacey.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company