On today’s podcast we have the first part of a special immersive experience into the Los Angeles District Attorney election. Molly Miller takes us inside a recent forum for the candidates. This is: The First LA DA Debate – Part One. Participating Candidates: George Gascón and Rachel Rossi. Invited but not attending: Jackie Lacey. Moderator: USC Professor Jody Armour.

SAMSON: “MANY DA’S AROUND THE COUNTRY SEEM FOCUSED PRIMARILY ON ACHIEVING PUNISHMENT AT ANY COST, MEASURED SOLELY BY CONVICTIONS AND PRISON SENTENCES BASED ON THE MISPLACED ASSUMPTION, THE INCORRECT ASSUMPTION THAT MORE PUNISHMENT EQUATES IMPROVED PUBLIC SAFETY…REDUCING THE ABSURDLY HIGH INCARCERATION RATE IN THIS COUNTRY WILL REQUIRE CREATING AN ALTERNATIVE SYSTEM FOR ADDRESSING BEHAVIORS THAT PRESENTLY RESULT IN INCARCERATION…THIS ALTERNATIVE SYSTEM SHOULD BE ROOTED IN A HOLISTIC PARADIGM OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE, PUBLIC HEALTH, SOCIAL SERVICES, AND ECONOMIC SUPPORT. ANYBODY FEEL THAT?”

The audience gave a warm applause accompanied by spirited whoops. 

Yeah, they felt that.

It was December 11, 2019 and the crowd filled the lobby of the California African American Museum for the first district attorney candidate debate. The speaker was Kendrick Samson, an actor whose olive eyes and stunning smile lit up the room. Like me, you might recognize him from his roles on Insecure, Vampire Diaries, and How to Get Away with Murder, but the audience knew him as an activist – one who received Pastor Eddie Anderson’s stamp of approval. “I know this brother is real,” he said. “I met him at my church at an organizing meeting.”

Samson set the tone for the event. In part, the night was a reckoning, a stark review of the injustices of LA’s criminal justice system, but it was also a political fireworks show. There was awe-inspiring hope in the air, propelled by the kinetic force of passionate activism and over a dozen carafes of coffee.

The debate’s moderator took the stage, renowned USC Law Professor Jody Armour, a man with a deliberate cadence and a stylish Afro. Before introducing the candidates, he underscored the gravity of the DA’s race.

ARMOUR: MICHELLE ALEXANDER HAS SAID AND OTHERS, THE CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE OF OUR TIME IS MASS INCARCERATION, RACIALIZED MASS INCARCERATION. THIS IS IT, SO WE WANT TO BE ABLE TO MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS ABOUT WHAT WE’RE GOING TO DO GOING FORWARD.

This is it.

At a time when impeachment proceedings congeal our airwaves and the existential threat of climate change spatters our newsfeed there is something refreshing about a problem that citizens of LA County can radically affect with our votes. The DA sets the culture of the office. They have the capacity to reinforce traditional punitive justice that disproportionately affects people of color or to bend prosecutors in a progressive direction of rehabilitation and diversion.

If mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our time then this race has profound importance, not just for Los Angeles, but also for the potential that LA has to be an example for the rest of the country.

In short: this race demands our time.

It demands our votes.

The candidates for LA County District Attorney who attended the debate were George Gascón, the former DA of San Francisco who boasts a progressive record, and Rachel Rossi, who leans on her experience as a former public defender. Notably absent from the lineup was incumbent DA Jackie Lacey who has been criticized for her lack of support for alternative justice and failure to prosecute police involved in shootings. In a picture taken of the debate participants and the moderator, Rossi playfully cocked a thumb at Jackie Lacey’s empty chair. Later, a crowd member placed a cardboard cutout of Jackie Lacey with the words “WHERE IS JACKIE LACEY” beside her unattended name card. It was clear to everyone in attendance: Lacey’s absence was the not-so-silent elephant in the room, the moderate voice that both Gascón and Rossi will inevitably confront if they continue in the race.

The first question posed to Gascón and Rossi came from Michael Saavedra, a member of the Youth Justice Coalition who was formerly incarcerated for over 19 years and is now a UC Berkley Underground Scholar Ambassador.

His question was related to gang enhancements or penal code 186.22 commonly referred to as the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act or STEP Act. Gang enhancements tacked on to a felony charge can result in additional years of incarceration on top of the underlying sentence. For non-serious felonies, the defendant faces an enhancement of 2, 3 or 4 years. For serious felonies, the defendant faces 5 additional years. And for violent felonies, the defendant faces an extra 10 years in prison.

The STEP Act also gives the DA the ability to charge participation in a gang as a crime, an offense which can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. Many criminal justice activists see these enhancements as racist due to how they disproportionately affect minorities. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as of August 2019, more than 90% of adults with a gang enhancement in a state prison were either black or Latino.

SAAVEDRA: WILL YOU STOP CHARGING GANG ENHANCEMENTS IN LA COUNTY AND SUPPORT STATEWIDE EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE GANG ENHANCEMENTS?

GASCÓN: THE ANSWER IS YES. AND ACTUALLY, AS THE DA IN SAN FRANCISCO WE DID TWO THINGS. NUMBER ONE, WE, UH STOPPED DOING GANG ENHANCEMENTS, MOSTLY. SECONDLY, WE BROUGHT IN THE STANFORD LAW SCHOOL TO HELP US LOOK AT THE IMPACT THAT IT HAS OVERALL IN THE SYSTEM BECAUSE WE WANTED TO UNDERSTAND: HOW DO WE LOWER INCARCERATION RATES? ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE FOUND OUT WHEN WE WERE LOOKING AT ENHANCEMENTS IS THAT THE BASE SENTENCE FOR MANY CRIMES AND I’M GOING BEYOND GANG, BY THE WAY, AND I’M GOING TO GET TO GANGS AS WELL BUT WHAT WE SAW IS THAT MOST OF OUR MASS INCARCERATION IN THIS COUNTRY WAS BEING DRIVEN BY ENHANCEMENTS PERIOD.

Gascón then pivoted to speaking about CalGang, a statewide database of gang members and associates. Critics of CalGang argue that it is a tool for racial profiling, an opinion bolstered by data from the California Department of Justice which shows that 90% of the individuals in the database are people of color. The criterion for the database is so broad that it’s nearly inescapable for individuals in certain neighborhoods. Associating with gang members, displaying gang symbols, wearing certain dress, having specific tattoos and frequenting gang areas are all factors that might qualify a person for inclusion in CalGang.

GASCÓN: THE DATABASE TO BEGIN WITH IS A DATABASE THAT’S BASED ON INFORMATION THAT HAS BECOME RACIST, RIGHT? SO WE BEGIN WITH GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. THE OTHER PROBLEM THAT WE HAVE WITH A DATABASE IS THAT IT TARGETS YOUNG PEOPLE JUST SIMPLY BY ASSOCIATION. SO VERY YOUNG KIDS THAT ARE RAISED IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THERE MAY BE GANG ACTIVITY, THEY IMMEDIATELY GET A SCARLET LETTER, THEY GET TAGGED AS A GANG ASSOCIATE, AND THEN THAT IS USED AGAINST THEM EVEN IF THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THEY’RE INVOLVED IN GANG ACTIVITY. SO THE ANSWER TO YOU IS YES, I WOULD STOP USING GANG ENHANCEMENTS, BUT I WOULD GO FURTHER THAN THAT. WE NEED TO REVIEW OUR ENTIRE ENHANCEMENT PROCESS IN CALIFORNIA BECAUSE WE’RE NEVER GOING TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS THING UNLESS WE START REDUCING THE OVERALL SENTENCING SCHEMES THAT HAVE DRIVEN MASS INCARCERATION.

When Rossi took up the baton she jumped off of Gascón’s denouncement of CalGang and then turned her attention towards strikes. In California, the Three Strikes Law mandates that if a defendant is convicted of a third violent or serious felony then they receive a prison sentence of 25 years to life. The law also states that defendants convicted of a second violent or serious felony receive twice the normal sentence for their current felony conviction. 

ROSSI: IT’S A TWO PART ANSWER. FIRST WE NEED TO LOOK AT WHO WE ARE CALLING GANG MEMBERS. THE AVERAGE AGE OF A GANG MEMBER IN LAS COUNTY, 15 YEARS OLD. WHO ARE WE CALLING GANG MEMBERS? WHO ARE WE LABELING AS GANG MEMBERS? WHO ARE WE PLACING INTO THESE GANG DATABASES BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY’RE WEARING, BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE HANGING OUT WITH, BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE RELATED TO? WE HAVE TO LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE WE ARE RELYING ON WHEN WE ARE CALLING SOMEONE A GANG MEMBER. UM, AND THEN SECOND I THINK IT IS VERY IMPORTANT THAT WE EVALUATE HOW YOU’RE CHARGING ALL ENHANCEMENTS AND HOW WE’RE CHARGING STRIKES. WE HAVE TO EVALUATE ANYTIME WHEN A DISTRICT ATTORNEY IS FILING A CHARGE THAT CARRIES AN EXTENDED AND HEAVIER SENTENCE, THEY’RE TAKING AWAY DISCRETION FROM A JUDGE. THEY’RE TAKING AWAY DISCRETION AND THEY ARE INSTEAD UM, MANDATING A CERTAIN PENALTY TO BE IMPOSED. AND WHAT I WOULD DO AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY IS I WOULD CREATE A POLICY WHERE WE WOULD REVIEW A CERTAIN LIST OF FACTORS IF WE’RE GOING TO IMPOSE AN ENHANCEMENT. SO YOU WOULD HAVE TO LOOK AT ALL OF THESE FACTORS INCLUDING UM, FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN YOU FILE A STRIKE, IF YOU’RE FILING A PRIOR STRIKE, WE NEED TO LOOK AT HOW OLD IS THAT PRIOR STRIKE, WHAT TYPE OF OFFENSE WAS THAT PRIOR STRIKE? AND WE NEED TO HAVE A PRESUMPTION OF NOT FILING AND RATCHETING UP SENTENCES BECAUSE AT THE END OF THE DAY, THE PROSECUTOR’S JOB IS NOT TO SEEK PENALTIES AND MORE TIME AND MORE TIME IN PRISON. THE PROSECUTOR’S JOB IS TO SEEK JUSTICE. AND NOW IF I WAS ELECTED DISTRICT ATTORNEY, THAT IS WHAT I WOULD DO.

While both candidates provided progressive responses, one subtle difference stands out between the two: Gascón explicitly said he would get rid of gang enhancements and Rossi did not. It’s unclear if the ambiguity on Rossi’s part was a tactical move away from a tough subject or simply an answer abbreviated by time constraints. What is clear is that both candidates are in favor of radical change when it comes to enhancements, while Jackie Lacey has taken little action to eradicate those pillars of racial discrimination. Unfortunately, we can only guess at Lacey’s response. For now, her absence speaks volumes.

We hope to follow up with all the candidates on these issues in interviews that Crime Story has requested.


PART 2 of this piece will cover the candidate’s answers to questions regarding the Conviction Review unit and immigration.