When I moved to LA, I dreaded living in a city famous for its superficiality but I reassured myself that I was also settling in a mecca of progressive ideals. Marijuana is legal, gay marriage is celebrated, and the state is plastered with blue on every political rendering. Welcome to California, or as Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock called it, “The People’s Gaypublic of Drugifornia.”
Given what I knew, I assumed that in LA, the District Attorney’s Office would be at the forefront of criminal justice reform.
Apparently not. “We’re all cognizant of the fact that LA County’s really behind. Embarrassingly behind. And it feels like the DA’s office doesn’t see it.”
This was the take of one experienced public defender. Let’s call her Claire — she’d prefer to remain anonymous — and its shared by other attorneys at the public defender’s office who see the LA District Attorney trailing behind more progressive DA’s in the area of criminal justice reform.
I first saw Claire at a hearing in which she represented a client charged with a drug offense. He had been pre-approved for CCC (Community Collaborative Courts), a program for dual diagnosis individuals that serves as an alternative to incarceration. The Deputy DA refused to sign off on her client’s diversion, forcing him to stay in jail.
Claire set her jaw and stared at the judge. Her tone became sharp. Adamant.
“I find it interesting that Jackie Lacey says she is interested in mental health and addiction and diversion programs but that never translates down to the line attorneys. We just keep filling up our prisons with mentally ill addicts who cycle in and out of prison because we never deal with the underlying issues. We are wasting taxpayer money by just warehousing people in cages and not actually rehabilitating anyone.”
In the gallery, an older man wearing a Lakers hat applauded.
Beside him, his sons nodded their buzz-cut heads.
A woman with long glittery fingernails gave an approving “Mhmm.”
Ultimately, nothing changed the Deputy DA’s mind. Claire spoke with her client before he was remanded to custody and then she marched out of the courtroom.
It was hard to catch up to her. Claire’s pace is blistering even while wearing heels. I quickly introduced myself and expressed my regret for what had happened with her client.
She gritted her teeth and replied bluntly, “This happens every day.”
Recently, Claire and I spoke for close to an hour over coffee at Grand Park, near the Criminal Courts Building. It was a cold day for LA, about 60 degrees, grey skies. The weather was never a topic of conversation. Claire isn’t one for small talk.
Being a public defender is who she is; what she became right out of law school and what she sees herself doing for her entire career. Her passion for the work is evident in the way she drives her syllables forward. She’s experienced and jaded, but undeterred. This is her calling.
There are some areas where Claire sees the system changing for the better, specifically in juvenile courts. The criteria for fitness hearings that determine if a juvenile can be tried as an adult have changed, making it more likely that minors stay in juvenile court. And in 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law preventing juveniles from being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Now, many individuals serving time who were sentenced as juveniles are eligible for youth offender parole hearings.
But there are areas where Claire notes a resistance to reform in LA County, especially when it comes to diversion, cash bail, and gang allegations.
“The frustrating thing is that we see progress happening…we see it happening in San Francisco, we see it happening in Philadelphia, we see it happening in New York. LA is way behind. That’s what’s outrageous. People don’t realize it.”
In New York, ultra progressive former public defender Tiffany Cabán recently lost the Democratic nomination for the position of District Attorney of Queens. But the margin was slim: just 55 votes separated Cabán and Melinda Katz, who had the backing of the Democratic establishment. Cabán identifies as queer and ran on a platform of democratic socialism, pledging to decriminalize sex work, eliminate bail for low-level offenses and avoid prosecuting low-level crimes. She presented her campaign as the antithesis to the machine politics of Democratic centrists, a stance that earned her the support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Despite Cabán’s loss, many political observers believe that the strength of her race has forced Katz’s platform to the left and reveals an undercurrent of support for progressive criminal justice in New York.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia has arguably the most progressive DA in the nation. Larry Krasner, who was elected in 2017, has radically transformed the prosecutor’s office with the goal of reducing mass incarceration. Early in his tenure, Krasner sent out a five-page document instructing prosecutors to decline charging possession of marijuana and most cases of prostitution. Retail theft under $500 was downgraded to a summary offense (rather than felony or misdemeanor), and diversion was to be offered for many firearm offenses. Krasner also told the attorneys in his office to make plea bargain offers below the bottom end of sentencing guidelines and required them to justify the financial cost of incarceration when recommending sentencing. Within three months of the establishment of these guidelines Krasner fired 31 prosecutors because they weren’t committed to his radical changes.
Another prosecutor leading the charge is former San Francisco DA George Gascón, who is known for reducing jail populations in his county to less than 25% of the rate of incarceration in Los Angeles. Gascón sponsored Prop 47, which eased punishment for some nonviolent offenders in California and he helped lower the state prison population with Assembly Bill 109, which allowed some individuals to serve their sentences locally. In addition, the progressive prosecutor is highly critical of cash bail, calling the practice “inherently unfair and archaic.” In October of 2019, Gascón left San Francisco and moved to LA to begin his campaign for District Attorney of Los Angeles, challenging incumbent DA Jackie Lacey.
When I asked Claire if she thought we needed a progressive DA to achieve substantial change in LA County, she nodded.
“Yes, but then it will take a long time for their whole culture to change, so it starts with that. But then there has to be a major culture shift and then they have to move away from their mentality.”
Sometimes hearing realistic answers about the future is difficult. I was truly hoping that she’d assure me that a new DA would be the panacea for all our criminal justice maladies. Instead I’m starting to feel that the problem is larger than a vote, or a bill, or even a new generation.
So I ask the most stoner question of all time:
“Do you think the system itself is broken?”
The dam breaks. She’s thought about this a lot.
“I have two answers. A lot of times I say that the system is broken and sometimes I feel like it needs to be burned down to start over. But then the flip side, which my friends and I talk about is no, the system is working exactly as it was intended to work…
“It was never intended to be lady justice dispensing fair and equal justice. Lawyers and judges back when our country was started were white, wealthy, landowning men … This is who they put in charge. Then the poor people in the town were brought in front of them and the white wealthy landowning men decided their fate…In Montgomery, Alabama in the 30s and 40s there were sham trials for black men accused of crimes and then they would walk them out to the courtyard greenery and hang them.
“I don’t know how far we’ve come from that.
“If you go to the jails, if you go to the prisons, it’s a bunch of brown and black men and a few poor white ones and it seems like that was what was supposed to happen…I’m not blind. There are those few, actual criminal cases but those are so rare. The majority are all mentally ill, drug addicted, traumatized people.”
I pull at my coat. It’s suddenly cold.
Claire sighs. “Yeah, it sucks.”
I fumble over my words, trying to assure her that I’m fine. Everything’s fine. It’s just the truth. That’s not her fault. But I have to ask.
“Is there hope for change in our lifetime?”
She purses her lips. “I didn’t used to think so…but there have been a lot of changes in the past five years that I didn’t expect. And I do think that community projects and the arts and entertainment have helped that. The country that we live in, people aren’t paying attention to academics; they’re paying attention to Kim Kardashian. So if she’s going to bring issues to the masses that’s great.”
When I moved to Los Angeles, I thought I was settling in the mecca of progressive ideals but I also knew that I was entering the epicenter of the entertainment industry. I never relished inhabiting the Hollywood orbit but the gravity is inescapable. The affluent ring of tinseltown echoes through all of Los Angeles, from the TV show billboards that loom over congested streets to the designer shoes trudging on the crumbling sidewalks. The shallow sparkle of LA was never something I admired. But Clare makes me reconsider its power: maybe progressive ideals aren’t at war with the superficiality of showbizz.
And maybe, in some ways, I want to be like Kim Kardashian.