Los Angeles County district attorney candidates Jackie Lacey and Alan… (Handout / Los Angeles Times…)
Campaigns for district attorney generally boil down to two questions: Who is toughest? And who is most experienced? Even those questions politely obscure what voters really want to know: Is my district attorney going to keep me safe?
The June primary in this year's race for Los Angeles County district attorney moved us beyond that simple question. Voters recognized the unusual moment they face in the recent history of criminal justice. Crime has reached historic lows, but the costs of over-sentencing and incarceration busted the state budget, and prison population was so in excess of capacity as to violate the U.S. Constitution. Almost every candidate, to one degree or another, heard voters demanding more thought and more discussion about recidivism, rehabilitation and realignment. Public safety is still paramount, but the people of Los Angeles County also demand a justice system that is efficient and effective. Some of the six lawyers running for the post were ready for the moment, others had to learn and refocus, but for the most part they engaged in a discussion worthy of the top prosecutorial job in the nation's most populous county.
Unfortunately, at a post-primary debate in August, the two finalists, Alan Jackson and Jackie Lacey, retreated from substantive discussion. That step backward was not entirely surprising, given that the candidates were trying to distinguish themselves from each other, and given the blunt fact that campaigning in a county this size easily turns into a battle for endorsements and a struggle to raise as much money as possible. Deeper thinking about the criminal justice system gets shelved as candidates return to the emotion-based campaigning that has long been the norm in local elections, especially for jobs such as sheriff and district attorney.
And so, at the forum sponsored by the Los Angeles County Organization of Police and Sheriffs, Lacey jabbed at Jackson for appearing too soft on the death penalty in a video presentation on The Times' website, and Jackson trotted out the timeworn, and tiresome, charge made by any prosecutor who finds himself with plenty of courtroom time but short on administrative experience: I'm a real prosecutor; she's merely an office administrator.
Ms. Lacey, please: Jackson's too soft on the death penalty? That's an invention. Both candidates have made it only too clear that they oppose Proposition 34, the Nov. 6 ballot measure that would end the death penalty in California and in so doing would end the unsustainable costs of administering it. Neither candidate presents data or evidence that death sentences make us safer. It's one area in which they have opted for rhetoric and emotion over reason and leadership.
Mr. Jackson, come on: Lacey's not an experienced prosecutor? She's been one of the top two or three people running the office for years.
Both candidates, when allowed, have shown they are at least as comfortable tossing one-liners as dealing with substance. Lacey demanded that Gov. Jerry Brown fulfill his promise to deliver the funding counties need for their new role supervising some convicted felons under the program known as public safety realignment (they have money for the current fiscal year, but there is no constitutional guarantee of money in coming years). Fair point, but Brown's program for fulfilling his promise is embodied in Proposition 30. Does she support it or not?
Pressed on the point in the weeks after the debate, Lacey took some time, thought it over and concluded that yes, she does support the temporary tax increase, which would among other things keep the funding for realignment flowing to counties.
For his part, Jackson said he opposes Proposition 30. Fine, but how would he pay the counties' new costs? The money must come from elsewhere in the budget, Jackson said, but he offered no programs to cut, so he leaves us with no guidance about how counties should be expected to fulfill their responsibilities to handle the non-serious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders who until a year ago were under the purview of the state. That sort of answer may play well in a small county: It's Sacramento's problem, not ours. But Los Angeles County is responsible for a third to a half of inmates in state prison, and must now incarcerate or supervise a proportional number of felons right here, in jails or alternative sentencing programs. A third of the state's realignment money is sent here, and if the state is not sending enough, a third of the consequences — at very least — will be felt here. Leadership from Los Angeles' lead prosecutor requires more than merely calling on the state to find money.
The summer is over and voter attention is returning to important decisions on the November ballot, including which candidate will best serve Los Angeles County as district attorney over the coming four years. Voters still want to know which candidate will keep them safe and which is most likely to withstand the pressure of a difficult job. The candidates can, and should, answer those questions by being frank, fact-based and thoughtful about the challenges they would face. A candidate who sticks to one-liners and problems but not realistic solutions is likely to operate with the same style as district attorney.