Jackie Lacey on the Witness Stand

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After winning election in a contentious race to replace Steve Cooley as district attorney of Los Angeles County, Jackie Lacey hasn’t had the opportunity to rest on her laurels or celebrate the significance of being the first woman and African American to serve as head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Instead she’s had to contend with one of the most momentous chapters in recent law enforcement history, adjusting to challenging new realities as part of the state-wide prison realignment process. During a visit to the Bedrosian Center as the Lunch with a Leader series a few weeks ago, Lacey demonstrated the resolve and equanimity of a veteran prosecutor, as well as a canny understanding of the power dynamics and new leadership demands in the realignment era. In an intimate setting with students, faculty, and practitioners, the district attorney for Los Angeles County shared dispatches from the frontlines of the prison realignment process in Los Angeles as well as insight into her leadership style and pointed thoughts on who should be the next Los Angeles County Sheriff. 

A graduate of Dorsey High School and the first person in her family to attend college, Lacey found her calling as prosecutor, first in Santa Monica and then for many years as part of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. Since 2013, she’s headed the largest local prosecutorial office in the nation and served as one of the most powerful voices in the state’s criminal justice system.

As the largest county in the state, Los Angeles County has faced significant challenges in adapting to the federally mandated 2011 realignment plan to reduce the state prison population by shifting custody, treatment, and supervision of offenders to the county level. Realignment has meant overcrowded jails (“another lawsuit waiting to happen,” according to Lacey), and a mandate to pursue new policies to reduce crime and the number of inmates. In response, Lacey has championed implemented sentencing reform, including the creation of pilot programs for a second-chance reentry program and mental-health courts, but she is well aware pursuing change carries serious political risk.

“Prosecutors in the past have not wanted to talk about reentry programs or diversion programs because they are politically risky for us,” Lacey said. “The minute someone you gave a break to gets out and murders someone, you will be sued. You will be thrown all over the press as soft on crime. And if there’s anything, any description that prosecutors don’t want, is that term soft. And you can imagine being the first female district attorney in Los Angeles—that is something that I have to walk a fine line on.”

Lacey is committed to expanding the use of rehabilitation programs, which many hope will be effective at curtailing the state’s swollen 64 percent recidivism rate.

“With rehabilitation and alternative sentencing programs, those recidivism rates have been shown to drop down to about 20 percent,” Lacey said. “We have not fully used rehabilitation programs to the extent we should have. But now we really are being forced to do that.”

In addition to navigating policies and politics of realignment, Lacey has a keen sense of the need for improved communication and leadership in the criminal justice system, particularly in an era where more collaboration between different agencies and departments is required.

“The best thing about realignment is that people who have never worked together are working together, I now know what the probation office does. I now keep track of the beds,” she said. “When I keep track of the beds, that’ll tell me how long someone will do in jail if they’re sentenced. It has given us locally more responsibility and accountability for the words that we utter in court as part of the criminal justice system.”

Interestingly, Lacey finds that the increased cross-departmental cooperation required in government today. A noted student of leadership, Lacey has made forging strong relationships with her partners a theme of her tenure in office, and good relations with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, and law enforcement partners across the county has led to more effective implementation of policies.

“I think relationships with your justice partners are key,” she said. “All these relationships are very important, because if the leaders get along, you kind of give everybody else who works under you permission to cooperate. In a county this size with the largest criminal justice system in the world, if you want anything great done, you have got to get the relationships in place and figure out who you need in order to get your goal or your vision done.

You can’t come into a leadership position and just tell people what to do. You must spend time developing relationships. They’re crucial to your success.”

Because relationship between law enforcement agencies are so critical, Lacey has made a rare decision to endorse a candidate in the open election to find a successor to former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who resigned in January after the latest round of corruption charges and prison scandal.

“For me, who the next sheriff is I believe is crucial to the success of a lot of my alternative sentencing programs,” she said. “Normally I’m not involved in races because there’s a downside. If you back somebody and they don’t win, the person who gets in remembers that, and they might punish you.

“But sometimes you just got to go out there and take that risk. So for me, I have chosen to support Chief Jim McDonnell from Long Beach because I have worked closely with him,” she said. “At the end of the day, I need somebody on the other end whom I can have a reasonable conversation with. Chief Jim McDonnell has integrity, and he understands that in order to inspire true change in law enforcement, you must lead by example.”