On today’s podcast we present the conclusion of my two-part interview with Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. (You can find a link to Part One of the interview here.) Ms. Lacey is in the middle of a hotly-contested election race against former San Francisco district attorney George Gascón. Back in March, before the Primary election that sent Ms. Lacey and Mr. Gascón to a run off in the General Election, Molly Miller and I interviewed Mr. Gascón (Part One here and Part Two here) and the other Primary contestant, Rachel Rossi (here). (You can find links to all of our coverage of the L.A. District Attorney race here.)

We also extended an invitation to Ms. Lacey, and, after a series of conversations with her campaign, I had the opportunity to interview her via zoom last Tuesday, October 20

In Part Two we discuss mass incarceration in California, law enforcement reform in Los Angeles, the relationship between line prosecutors and their supervisors in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, the L.A. Conviction Review Unit, diversion programs for mental health, and the decision to retry David Martinez in a case that Crime Story’s Molly Miller has been covering.

Kary Antholis:

Most people know the statistics that America has 5% of the world population, and close to 25% of the world’s prisoners. Do you think that America in general, and California in particular over incarcerate people?

Jackie Lacey:

It’s so hard. I mean, looking at just the statistics from the 10,000 foot level, it’s like, “Of course, we’re over incarcerating. What should we be doing?” But then a case comes in, Kary, and you look and you think, “Okay. Well, this guy can be diverted safely. This person, we could not file this case.” And we’re doing that in LA. But in urban cities, there is a lot of crime a lot more than people realize, and some crimes do cry out for incarceration. That said, in looking at why people commit crimes, there’s a lot of economic disparities. Like African-Americans, they’re still behind. There aren’t great economic opportunities for them. There are not, there just isn’t. So a lot of crime you’ll see is committed for economic reasons, and I would love to create incentives for people not to go into crime. 

Because when you think about it, the way I heard it described recently … I think it was pretty good by a prosecutor in my office named John McKinney. John says when he was growing up, drug dealing was so lucrative that if you tried to offer somebody a minimum wage job, they’d be like, “Nah, I don’t need to take that. I can make X amount of dollars.” So we’ve got to figure out how to take the incentive out of crime. One way, of course, is a jail term. But there are probably other ways where we can increase opportunities for African-Americans. When I went away to college and in law school, I remember I was only one of four students at USC, in in my class, there were 200. So one of four. And if I went back there today, I probably would see that same number. Wouldn’t be that many. So as an African-American professional, I’m constantly thinking about ways how can I mentor our kids? How can I inspire them? If I can do it, a lot of people can do it. Because I didn’t consider myself a genius or all that smart. 

I was willing to work hard and figure it out, and learn what I needed to learn. So many kids give up hope so early, and I just … It’s heartbreaking, and we do need to figure out how to inspire more kids, particularly more kids of color, to just ask for help, ask for tutoring, ask for mentorship. They can make it. They can be very, very successful.

Kary Antholis:

How do you talk to your kids about these issues? About issues of racial justice and about criminal legal reform? What’s your engagement with them like?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, my children are in their late 30s. My son’s 38, so my daughter’s 35. Most days I’m listening, they’re telling me. 

Kary Antholis:

And what do you hear from them?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, my son is very conservative. His attitude is not very conservative, but he’s more on the conservative side. He’s like, “Look, I don’t live in a neighborhood with a lot of crime. People don’t have an excuse for committing crimes.” My daughter is more nuanced. She’s more, “Well, there are reasons people commit crimes, and we need to deal with the underlying reasons.” And I listen and we talk a lot about their lives growing up. They went to school in Simi Valley and when they went to school, the vast majority of people were white, they were the minority. For me, it was reversed. Blacks were the majority. So we talk about the differences. And one of the things that I see in them is, they’re now starting to talk about some of the racial incidents that happened that they didn’t tell me about during coming to school and there’s some scars there. I wish I had known, I probably would have sent them to a much more racially diverse school. So we talk about race in America very, very openly. They asked a lot of questions. 

There’s a lot in my world that I don’t share with them, because when I’m with them, I just want to be mom. I don’t want to be a prosecutor. But they have very, very … Their own opinions about things and I encourage them, but I also want them to be factual because sometimes they’ll hear generalizations. I want them to know the world is not black and white, there’s a lot of gray.

Kary Antholis:

I want to ask you some questions about law enforcement in Los Angeles. And perhaps we can tie it into the dialogue with your kids, especially over the course of the last few months in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the other incidents that have happened around the country. Do you think that there’s a difference between the efficacy of reform efforts in the LAPD and the efficacy of such reform efforts in the LA Sheriff’s Department?

Jackie Lacey:

Yeah. With LAPD, for instance, there’s more of a decrease in officer involved shootings from 2015 to 2019 than there is in the Sheriff’s. Now, LAPD had a larger number of shootings to begin with, but their decrease had to be something like 50% where the Sheriff’s would have had … They might have had 14 shootings in one year … officer involved shootings in one year, and decreased down to 10. The LAPD, they really have doubled down on community policing. They have clergy panels that I have seen they, they go out to different communities. I watch some of their community meetings, and the people talk to them and they interact with the community. The Sheriff’s Department, I haven’t really seen much of that type of community outreach. They might be doing it, I just haven’t personally witnessed it or seen it. But I think LAPD, at least it’s more visible, the outreach that they do.

Kary Antholis:

Do you think that the LA Sheriff’s Department has a gang problem? There are reports of gangs like the Vikings and the-

Jackie Lacey:

Right. Well, I think there’s enough reports out there to believe it. Some of the people that have come forward are Deputy Sheriff’s, so I have no reason to doubt it. The issue is what do we do? Right? Because, believe it or not, belonging to a gang is not a crime. It’s when you do the criminal behavior that we get involved. Criminal behavior for the benefit of a gang, that’s when the LA DA’s office gets involved. I know the Sheriff has fired some people, demoted some people, disciplined some people for being involved in criminal activity connected with a gang, but I really feel like it’s up to him to be that leader who says, “We’re not going to have that here.”

Kary Antholis:

Are there more resources that could be allocated in the prosecutor’s office in terms of investigating and examining that problem? Or do you think that you’ve got that measured right, right now?

Jackie Lacey:

We could always use more resources. As it is, it takes some time for us to review cases in the Justice System Integrity Division, so we could always use more resources. I don’t think we’re going to get them anytime soon, because just recently there was a hiring freeze and we had to curtail our budget by 8% because of COVID. We ended up having less revenue come into the county, so we were cut. And I anticipate that next year, our budget will be cut also. So it’ll be difficult to bring those resources in. Because you have to remember, we file 120,000 cases in a year. So there’s not just … Right now, people are focusing in on police accountability. But there’s a lot of crime that doesn’t fit into that subject matter. So it’d be difficult. But sure, we could use a lot more resources in that area.

Kary Antholis:

I’ve heard and read anecdotal stories claiming that some line prosecutors are being forced to try cases they don’t believe in, or not engage in plea negotiations that they would ordinarily do. I’ve heard it referred to as walking the dog. Have you ever heard that expression? Are you aware of, particularly of supervisors in the prosecutor’s office pushing line prosecutors to go forward with cases or stack charges in a way that they object to? Have you heard of this concept of walking the dog?

Jackie Lacey:

I have heard of the concept. I don’t … Without talking to the prosecutors that you’ve talked to, I don’t agree that people have to try a lot of cases. So for … in order to get ahead in the office. For instance, I am the one who makes the promotional decisions. I look at what is your contribution to the office. And that may be trials, but it also may be appeals. It might be the Conviction Review Unit, it might be other things. Here’s what data you should ask for, Kary, before you bite into that. Our trial numbers are so much lower than they used to be, our filing numbers are so much lower than they used to be. So it doesn’t, the data doesn’t quite go along with people are being pressured to go to trial. That said, I have an open door. I talk to anybody. People do tell me things, no one has come to me and said that. We’re constantly looking over our manager’s shoulders to make sure they’re sending the right message. Not that we don’t have some who may be pressuring folks to go to trial. 

But if we’re aware of it, we deal with it, we take care of it. There have been times, for instance, where I’ve personally gone to visit a manager or called a manager and said, “Look, here’s the thing, we’re about justice.” I will tell you my own experience growing up in that office. I never had a try case I didn’t believe in. If there was a case that I thought the guy was not guilty, the manager would say, “Dismiss it.” And I never felt pressured to go to trial other than the pressure I put on myself, because I felt a case needed a good prosecutor who was committed. But I never had a manager say to me personally, “Walk the dog, you got to take this to trial.” There are tough cases in the office, but I just don’t agree that the people that you’ve talked to, whoever they are, are really representative of all the folks in the office and how they feel about that office. And the numbers are not there.

Kary Antholis:

You mentioned the Conviction Review Unit. Why does LA have so many fewer DAs and investigators in our Conviction Review Unit than other smaller jurisdictions? And why do you think that there are more cases that are reevaluated in other smaller jurisdictions than here in LA?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, I think you have to know the history of Conviction Integrity Units, as they’re sometimes called in Conviction Review Units. So in the jurisdictions where there’s a lot, there was normally a problem with officers. You would be able to trace down those numbers to there was an officer who lied or there was an officer who framed people, those sorts of things. We haven’t uncovered anything like that here in LA County. Every case that we get, we review. We’ve had … You’ll have to get the numbers from them. But it’s more than 1,000, less than 2,000 claims that have been made. And in terms of the resources, we feel like they’re adequately resourced. One thing that is a misnomer though, is that people only count the cases that are dismissed by the Conviction Review Unit. There are cases that get dismissed in the HABLIT (Habeas Corpus Litigation Team) Unit that are reviewed. There are cases that are resentenced under a section called 1170(d). Just recently, we filed a case on officers lying on a Field Identification Card, eight cases were dismissed. 

Not by the Conviction Review Unit, but throughout the office because we lost faith in the convictions. So the numbers, when you just look at the CRU, you may not be getting that full picture of the cases that we’ve reviewed and dismissed because we’ve lost faith in the conviction. That said, it’s been years since we’ve had the Rampart scandal. We just haven’t found cases, per se, that are tied to a corrupt officer that widespread people were convicted of homicides or murders.

Kary Antholis:

One of the areas that you have been very proactive about in terms of reform is evaluating the mental health of individuals who are being prosecuted, and try to get them diverted into mental health treatment. Where does that impetus come from in you? And just tell me a bit about your efforts on that front.

Jackie Lacey:

Before I was elected DA, a woman came to see me. She was from Memphis Tennessee. She came to see me, she said, “My daughter is in jail here. I would like you to tell your prosecutors to release my daughter, she has a mental health issue. I didn’t know it, but I can get her some help.” So I looked at the case, Miriam was a grad student here in L.A. she was going to college and she had a break and no one really detected it. She began to be very paranoid, and one day she was out in her apartment complex screaming, yelling, beating on the doors with a knife. The security guard who works the apartment called the cops, and they had her put on what’s called 5150 hold and for the first time she was diagnosed with a mental health issue. She was medicated and released. She went back to the apartment, stopped taking her medication and one day she runs out and she gets into a car where the keys are in the ignition but the owner isn’t there. She starts to drive off in that car, and the owner reaches in and undoes the keys and they struggle over the keys. She eventually leaves, but she leaves her purse in there. So she’s arrested and she’s charged by our office with carjacking, and she had no record. I did agree to release her. I checked up on her later, and she ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge. But it was still a felony, and it’s seemed unjust to me. It didn’t seem right. So when I became DA, this is something I wanted to tackle. We had too many people in the jails who had a mental health issue, that if you just addressed that, you would never see them, they’d be fine. So I started with a small group of people. Sheriff’s Department representative came to me and said, “There are people in this jail that don’t belong here.” It was almost like we all woke up at the same time. I started the Criminal Justice Mental Health Project five years ago. 

It was to not only divert people, but look for alternatives for people so that they didn’t end up in jail or prison. And ended up either in full supportive housing, or something else where they could actually get treatment. I’m committed to this. I see a path, I see successes. This is a very difficult project because we have a guy who was on his medication and doing well for about 18 months, and suddenly he got a hold of methamphetamine, stopped taking his psych meds and he’s back out on the street where we found him. So it’s tough, but I feel like what we’re doing now is inhumane, and it’s inefficient, and it’s ineffective, and we could do a lot better.

Kary Antholis:

One last question. At Crime Story, we’ve covered the trial of David Martinez for the killing of Pomona Police Officer, Shaun Diamond during a raid of Martinez’s home in the wee hours of the morning. Martinez testified that he fired the shot that killed officer Diamond in self-defense because he was unaware that it was the police who were breaking in. And a jury found Martinez not guilty of first degree murder and was hung 9-3 for acquittal on the count of second degree murder. Are you aware of that case? And why has your office chosen to retry David Martinez on those charges?

Jackie Lacey:

I’m not familiar enough with that case to render any sort of opinion. That decision to retry did not reach my … Come to me. But we have a policy manual that governs retrials and they’re reviewed and we look at the evidence and we talk to the lawyers, and we look at the jury verdicts, and we pay attention to those things in making a decision. So I just wouldn’t be able to render an opinion other than a case of that magnitude and that important, I’m sure it’s been reviewed by managers at the top level on a decision. If a decision has been made, as you say, to retry, it’s because they believe they have the evidence.

Kary Antholis:

Jackie Lacey, thank you so much for your time. 

Jackie Lacey:

Thank you very much, I appreciate it. Nice talking to you, Kary.

Kary Antholis:

Nice talking to you too.