It's 2016, and look who's back in the news: O.J. Simpson and his murder trial are the subjects of a popular TV series. And now there is the knife, supposedly dug up nearly 20 years ago on Simpson's former property and finally turned in this year by an ex-cop who had been keeping it in his private collection. The headlines summon memories of the so-called trial of the century and the 1990s, when the rap against the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office was that it couldn't win the big cases and couldn't match the sheer lawyering power wielded by wealthy celebrity defendants like Simpson.
It's not just a different era but virtually a different world for current Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who is soon to complete her first term and will run for reelection June 7 with no opponent — and as a consequence will win, without even the need for a campaign or a November runoff.
Voters will have other decisions to make on their ballots, but when they get to the D.A. box their only question will be whether to bother. The Times editorial board will make its endorsement later this spring, and naturally, with no options, there will be no suspense.
Lacey's easy path to reelection is at least as much a function of political good fortune — for example, no high-profile celebrity acquittals, like Simpson's — as it is a reflection on her performance during her first four years in office. The Times prepared midterm report cards for city and state officials and it is appropriate to now do the same for Lacey. The same is true for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the other Los Angeles County elected official up for reelection this year, also without opposition, and The Times will be filing a report card for him in coming days.
For Lacey, the bottom line is that she has been a good district attorney. She has earned a solid B.
The rub is that Los Angeles County — with the state's largest criminal caseload and a population greater than New York City's and in fact greater than or equal to that of 43 states — deserves a Grade A district attorney. And it needs one especially now, in this time of wrenching change in the justice system, with the long-overdue focus on recidivism, rehabilitation and realignment, and with the nationwide reconsideration of policing and prosecutorial practices. It needs a leader who can sift through the arguments, the emotions and the ideas of the would-be reformers and their detractors and push forward worthy changes, hold the line against bad ones and — crucially — be the visible and vocal point person to publicly explain the difference.
Too often, Lacey drifts to the wrong side of the line that separates prudence from timidity, but it doesn't have to be that way. She has demonstrated that she can be the trailblazer that L.A. needs, for example when she spearheaded the diversion of mentally ill defendants from jail to community treatment.
Her leadership on that issue was in some sense a surprise, because on entering office she set a fairly unambitious agenda that focused on important but hardly groundbreaking programs such as fighting elder abuse and cyber-crime. She updated her office's mission statement. She did some rebranding.
But when she saw the folly of continuing to cycle mentally ill defendants and convicts in and out of jail and the openness (albeit reluctance) of county supervisors to treating inmates as patients, in community clinics rather than jails, in order to free up needed cell space and better protect the public (by offering real treatment and making recidivism less likely) she came into her own as a district attorney. She led. The county now has an Office of Diversion and Reentry, and is rolling out programs, because Lacey stepped up.
Likewise, she established a conviction review unit to actively look into claims by people her predecessors or even her own prosecutors had sent to prison that they had been falsely convicted. It's not the first such unit in the nation or even the state, but being part of the huge and influential Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office makes it a big deal and potentially a model for other offices.
She did her part to implement the program known as realignment, which gives counties responsibility for many convicted felons who until 2011 would have come under the purview of the state. That's especially noteworthy because as a candidate she labeled realignment “a terrible mistake.” She was wrong — the program did not drive up crime rates. But since being elected, she has helped to make realignment work in Los Angeles County by instructing her somewhat resistant team of 1,000 prosecutors to seek “split sentences,” in which offenders who leave jail are subject to a period of oversight and assistance in safely and successfully returning to society.
If only she would show that same kind of vision and courage when it comes to other programs, like bail reform. Or like Proposition 47, the 2014 initiative that converts drug possession and several other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors — which can help the state make smarter use of its criminal justice and incarceration resources by not clogging jails with people more effectively handled through alternative programs. Perhaps the measure's supporters, such as The Times' editorial board, ought to be pleased that Lacey took no official position, instead of vocally opposing it as most of the state's other district attorneys did. Perhaps her neutrality was, for her, politically prudent. But it was not a demonstration of leadership, and it did not make use of the pulpit she possesses as chief of the state's largest prosecutorial office. Today, when residents question whether the initiative has increased crime and whether it is properly being implemented, she is the official they should be able to look to for answers.
There is also the difficult issue of police shootings and other disputed uses of force by law enforcement officers, and the district attorney's role in making sure not only that justice is done in those cases but that it is explained. Her decisions not to file charges in some high-profile cases (she has indeed filed in others) often appear baffling. She responds that no one, whether a civilian or an officer, should be prosecuted if charges cannot be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. And she argues that her job is merely to decide whether to bring criminal charges, and it is up to police and courts to decide whether any given police practice is otherwise satisfactory. That may be true — but if she is not the one official to critique the entirety of the process, who is?
Her reluctance to take on a higher public profile is a somewhat puzzling contradiction, because she grants an unusual and welcome degree of access to advocates and community groups with ideas to share or concerns to express, including concerns about police shootings. There is no doubt some political risk in being more widely visible, but it is a risk that a leader takes on.
Questions have arisen as to whether any district attorney is necessarily too close to police to ever be entrusted with prosecuting them. So in one sense, Lacey's task may not be that different after all from the one prosecutors faced in the O.J. Simpson era. She must constantly be ready to answer the questions: Is justice for all possible? Is it merely a function of power and influence? Is it a function of race? Do police lie, and do prosecutors cover for them?
Lacey must decide whether she is going to be a truly forward-leaning D.A., like those in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, or a backward-looking one like most of the others — or simply a solid but too-cautious and too-quiet one, as she has sometimes been so far. That's her challenge. Let's have faith — or hope, at least — that her first term was a warm-up and that in her second she will be ready to earn her A.
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L.A. County Supervisor
L.A. County Supervisor
If Los Angeles County government were a game and Mark Ridley-Thomas a player, he'd be a superstar. No one works the rules, studies the rosters, loves the game or plays it as hard as he does. Were we to grade him on his skills and his gamesmanship, he'd be an easy A.
But county government is not a game. It's the chief provider of human services and vital infrastructure to a region of 10 million people. Who's in charge? With the five-member committee that is the Board of Supervisors, who knows? The members make up a sort of legislature with no executive, yet at the same time they are a kind of five-headed executive with no legislative oversight. They are a family of squabbling brothers and sisters trying to manage the house in the absence of their parents, each sibling sniping about the others while forming, breaking and re-forming alliances in order to move their various agendas. They are a comically constituted group with deadly serious business to perform for their constituents.
Were we to score Ridley-Thomas on what he has achieved in this bizarre government body to this point, it would be tempting to give him a grade of incomplete, and here's why:
When he joined the board in 2008, Ridley-Thomas was treated as an interloper. He was the newcomer on a board whose four incumbents had been together (not always happily or productively) for decades. It took him his first four-year term to learn the culture and half the next to find his footing. The old board, before the transformative elections of 2014, had locked itself into a kind of stasis, governed by a level of caution that had drifted from laudable and desperately needed to stultifying. Ridley-Thomas had an agenda but could barely move it.
It's the right agenda — improving child protection, stopping inmate abuse in the jails, fixing youth probation, upgrading mental health services, ending homelessness, curbing criminal recidivism by paving the way for released inmates to successfully reenter society, and extending rail transit and economic development to the historically deprived southern portion of his district — a district that begins between the Los Angeles Harbor and the 405, and takes in Carson, Compton, Lynwood, Willowbrook, Watts and runs north through much of South Los Angeles, west to Culver City and almost to Marina del Rey, and north past the Santa Monica Freeway and Wilshire Boulevard to the Hollywood Freeway. His district includes the greatest number of people in the greatest need — the most homeless, the most in poverty, the most in foster care, the most in jail, likely the most on probation. The needs of his constituents align with the most pressing needs of the county as a whole.
When he arrived at the board, his colleagues grudgingly allowed some initiatives to proceed, such as the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. But many plans were in essence put on ice pending the wrenching change in the board's makeup that took place in November 2014, courtesy of the county's very first taste of term limits.
Then, for the first time since his arrival six years earlier, Ridley-Thomas was no longer the newcomer. He joined with two new supervisors (Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis) and sometimes the two remaining old-timers (Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe) to bounce a number of top county officials, consolidate the three formerly separate health departments, eliminate the chief executive office in all but name and generally rearrange the deck. Should we care? Yes — if those rearrangements mean that years of talk will finally turn into better oversight of the sheriff, actual diversion of mentally ill inmates from jail to treatment, housing for the homeless, effective child protection and probation. Many of those programs are just on the cusp of implementation. If they work, Ridley-Thomas will have earned an A in more than just gamesmanship.
Meanwhile, he has earned a bevy of detractors — people in and outside of county government who complain that he is too self-absorbed and too devious to be trusted. They point out that he, more than his colleagues, is in the habit of dropping last-minute items on meeting agendas, perhaps as part of an effort to control the game and the message. They worry that he is insufficiently committed to the county's recent history of relative fiscal responsibility, that he is too impatient for change on a board that has benefited, they say, from moving slowly. They call him an empire builder (his son is a member of the state Legislature). Don't credit him for all those great ideas, his critics argue, until they actually come to fruition and the county remains solvent.
Consider his hard-fought drive to create an oversight commission to keep an eye on the Los Angeles County sheriff. It's the right move, a necessary move, and no one deserves more credit than Ridley-Thomas for seeing it through. But the long, laborious process that allowed community members to weigh in on the particulars of oversight — who can serve, who appoints, and the like — may have been a bit of a smoke screen. It appears that from the beginning Ridley-Thomas wanted the commission to be a tool of the Board of Supervisors rather than the more independent body that the vast majority of witnesses who testified at the hearings (and The Times editorial board) would have preferred; and Ridley-Thomas got what he wanted. We salute the player. We're not always fans of the game.
And it's true that many of his ideas, formed and funded though they may be, have yet to fully come to pass. His work is incomplete. For what he's done to date, we give him a B.
Why even that, if so much of his work has yet to achieve success?
Because of the very solid business he got done for his constituents during those first six years, including successfully fighting for a Leimert Park station on the Crenshaw-to-LAX light rail line and for his hard work improving the infrastructure and streets of his district. And most importantly for the rethinking, restructuring, rebuilding and reopening of Martin Luther King Medical Center in Willowbrook. Ridley-Thomas stood nearly alone among African American elected officials in calling for the final closure of the disastrous hospital long known as “Killer King,” and it was a risky stance. The replacement is an enormous political achievement, to be sure, as well as an enormous and positive presence in the lives of the many thousands of people now served there. And the campus includes a recuperative care center — a place for discharged patients to go in lieu of the street. In a region long beset by patient dumping and homelessness, Ridley-Thomas has helped engineer a solution.
Much to the consternation of anyone seeking a more rational structure for county government, Ridley-Thomas is the chief architect of a return to a weak chief executive and an embrace of the five-headed executive. As a master of the game, though, he appears to have very definite ideas of what will work and what will not. As he moves toward his final four-year term — he is running for re-election on June 7 with no opposition — a vision for the county that had seemed somewhat mysterious to outside observers is coming into focus. If he can make it come to pass — if he can steer the county to genuine solutions for dealing with homelessness and poverty, if he can spur economic growth in South Los Angeles that serves the residents already there and not merely a new generation of gentrifiers, if he can make a collection of siloed bureaucracies perform effectively, rationally and efficiently — we can worry a bit less about the crazy org chart. We're hoping, somewhat nervously, for an “A” performance in his final term.