Next week, Los Angeles voters will decide among three vastly different candidates for the powerful position of top prosecutor in the city with the nation’s largest jail system. The LA County District Attorney’s Office has had disproportionately high incarceration rates for years. Whoever takes the seat has the power to implement monumental jail reform that could transform the lives of thousands of people.

On March 3, voters will choose between the sitting district attorney, Jackie Lacey; former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón; and former public defender Rachel Rossi. The three candidates, each with a different vision of how the DA’s office should be run, met onstage in a fiery debate in January. Each challenged the others on their records and were pressed to defend their past stances on jail reform.

Ultimately, the outcome of the race will be determined by how LA residents want the county’s jail system to be piloted: Do the people want to continue on the same path with Lacey, or are they ready for a new vision and a complete overhaul of the current system? Voters will be asking themselves this question at the same time that they’re contemplating significant reform via Ballot Measure R, which, if passed, will begin to reshape the system over which the newly elected DA will preside.

Jackie Lacey, incumbent Los Angeles district attorney

Throughout her nearly eight years as DA, Jackie Lacey has spent her time primarily focusing on protecting victims of crimes. Though she is the first woman and first African American to hold the position in LA County, criminal justice advocates have been unimpressed with her track record.

Lacey has received criticism from organizations such as Black Lives Matter for her refusal to prosecute members of law enforcement. Her decisions in these matters have led to large protests by civil rights activists. She has also been criticized by the ACLU for pursuing capital cases, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on the death penalty. Under her leadership, only people of color have been sentenced to death.

Lacey has described herself as a “reasonable reformer,” and she has been selective in her support for jail reform. When it comes to the issue of bail reform, Lacey is opposed to the abolition of cash bail, but says she believes that the system should be reformed since it keeps low-income people in jail.

Lacey in 2014 notably launched a sex trafficking diversion program, which aims to treat minors arrested for sex-related crimes as victims rather than criminals. The arrest records of minors who complete the program will be expunged. In 2015, she fought for a Conviction Review Unit, which evaluates potential mistakes by the justice system and addresses “credible claims of innocence.” Though the CRU has successfully overturned the wrongful convictions of several incarcerated people, it has been criticized for its lack of effectiveness, especially when compared to other similar programs across the country. She expanded the CRU last year to include additional criteria in order for more cases to be eligible for review. Lacey has also been responsible for establishing LA County’s Criminal Justice Mental Health Project, a program intended to divert mentally ill people from county jails into treatment facilities.

“The criminal justice system needs to better treat people living with mental illness for a wide variety of reasons, as the current system is bad for taxpayers, public safety officers and most importantly, the people struggling with mental health issues,” Lacey wrote in an op-ed last year for The Hill. “During a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help, and as a result, end up in the criminal justice system, frequently for minor nonviolent offenses.”

Critics, however, say that though Lacey touts her record of helping to treat people with mental illness, her actions don’t back up her claims. In 2017, Lacey faced a recall effort when she failed to prosecute an officer who fatally shot a mentally ill man.

George Gascón, former San Francisco district attorney

George Gascón, who resigned from his position in San Francisco in October to run for Lacey’s seat, is considered her fiercest challenger due to his extensive background in criminal justice reform. Gascón’s leadership has centered on ending mass incarceration. During his time in San Francisco, he sent people to prison at a much lower rate than did prosecutors in LA and implemented a tool that omits a person’s ethnicity from police reports when prosecutors are deciding whether to criminally charge a suspect. His goal, he says, is to reduce crime in LA County by incarcerating fewer people. Gascón supports the elimination of cash bail in LA and has proposed establishing behavioral health facilities to provide law enforcement the option of working with public health officials to find alternatives to jail.

“The ideal criminal justice system is one that requires almost no intervention because the community is policing itself,” Gascón said during an interview with The Appeal earlier this year. “Now we know that that is a utopian view of the work, but that should always be the path you’re seeking. The best communities are not the communities that have the presence of police at every corner in order to maintain safety.”

At a recent fundraiser hosted by singer John Legend, who lives in LA County, Gascón spoke against the overincarceration of the homeless and mentally ill, and criticized the regular practice of charging teenagers as adults. Most notably, in 2014 Gascón co-authored Proposition 47, a statewide bill that reduced many nonviolent felony crimes to misdemeanors.

Like Lacey, however, Gascón has faced protests related to his handling of shootings by police officers. His decision not to prosecute the officers responsible for two fatal shootings in San Francisco has been a go-to talking point for Lacey as she defends her own record. Despite his imperfect record as DA, Gascón was an early supporter of the California State Assembly’s AB392, which revised the standards for deadly force by law enforcement.

Rachel Rossi, former public defender and criminal justice reform policy expert

Rachel Rossi joins a new wave of public defenders challenging district attorneys for their seats. Though Rossi has never prosecuted a case before, she is framing herself as the candidate for major transformative change, and argues that LA residents are ready for a new, unique perspective.  

“I believe we need a district attorney who understands the impact of prosecutions and the system on marginalized communities, a perspective that only comes from standing on the other side of the courtroom, with the people,” Rossi recently said in an interview with LA Magazine.

Rossi says her primary focus is keeping people out of jail. She also hopes to stop law enforcement coordination with ICE at courthouses and probation offices. Though her legal track record isn’t as lengthy as Gascón’s, Rossi holds many of the same stances on jail reform: She opposes the death penalty; supports ending cash bail; is against prosecuting people for sex work or behavior linked to homelessness; wants to divert mentally ill people from the jail system; and supports appointing an independent prosecutor to investigate police shootings.

In the home stretch leading up to the election, the candidates are making bold moves, drawing additional attention to each campaign. Lacey recently dismissed 66,000 marijuana-related convictions, a decision that drew national attention. Rossi has criticized the move, saying the decision is “two years too late.” Gascón also recently made news by securing a major endorsement from Sen. Kamala Harris. It remains to be seen whether the publicity surrounding these events will have an impact on the election. But regardless of who gets the top job, one thing is certain: The newly elected DA will have their work cut out for them.

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...