After expressing support earlier this year for revoking protections for noncitizens who are convicted of first-time misdemeanor drug offenses in California, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has reversed course in the face of public scrutiny. This marks the second time since taking office that Lacey has advocated for a tough-on-crime policy only to back down in response to pushback from supporters of criminal justice reform.
The Daily Beast reports that Lacey’s office submitted a legal opinion last year that encouraged the reversal of a 2016 law, California Penal Code 1203.43, which allowed noncitizens with minor drug offenses avoid jail time and a criminal record if they completed court-mandated treatment. The DA’s office submitted the opinion to the 2nd Appellate District Court after being asked to weigh in on the petition of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient seeking to become a permanent legal resident. The DA’s office challenged the constitutionality of CPC 1203.43 and recommended that the court deny the petition. But when reporters at The Daily Beast reached out to Lacey’s office last week to ask about it, her office abruptly announced its decision to withdraw the legal opinion—less than 24 hours after the initial inquiry.
“This legislation passed to help immigrants with the explicit recognition that there are these adverse immigration consequences to low-level misdemeanor convictions,” said Kate Chatfield, Senior Advisor for Legislation and Policy at The Justice Collaborative. “We don’t want people deported over these kinds of convictions, especially when they have completed whatever training or program we already had them do.”
Lacey’s initial challenge to the law drew criticism from lawmakers across the state.
“I think the reversal came about because there is some pressure on this particular case,” Chatfield said. “It would have had a far-reaching impact on immigrants in California, and that is not a politically popular position.”
Lacey has a pattern of reversing course after pushback against hardline criminal justice policies she’s endorsed. She initially refused to enforce Senate Bill 1437, which was signed into law in 2018 by Gov. Jerry Brown. The bill repealed the state’s felony murder laws, which allowed a district attorney to charge each person involved in a felony that led to someone’s death with first degree murder, even those who had no direct involvement in the killing. The bill provided relief to those who had been imprisoned for decades by reducing the lengths of their sentences if they had not participated in the death for which they were charged. Lacey argued the bill was unconstitutional, saying it violated the separation of powers and would relitigate cases that had already been decided by the courts. Critics said Lacey was fueling mass incarceration by refusing to enforce the bill. She eventually changed her tune after Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his support for the law.
Lacey’s history on criminal justice reform has already become a point of contention in her upcoming reelection campaign against former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. Activists have criticized her track record on criminal justice reform, with critics pointing out that she has refused to support policies that could reduce the county’s consistently high incarceration rates. L.A. County imprisons people of color at four times the rate of white offenders. The DA has also disappointed reformists over her refusal to embrace policies that could reduce sentences for low-level offenses.
A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that since Lacey has held her current position, only people of color have been sentenced to death. Despite the fact that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law earlier this year issuing a moratorium on the death penalty, Lacey’s office has continued to seek capital punishment during trials.
In a letter to the LA Timesin March, Lacey wrote, “I support criminal justice reform that does not jeopardize our safety. My decisions are drawn from my 30 years of experience as a prosecutor as well as my experience growing up as an African American in this country.”