With the impending retirement of Steve Cooley, Los Angeles County is poised to have a new district attorney for the first time in 12 years.
The June 5 primary election comes at a crucial moment, when budget crises and realignment are forcing dramatic changes in the criminal justice system.
The race to lead the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation is shaping up to be intensely competitive, the first in almost half a century without an incumbent on the ballot.
Five deputy district attorneys, plus the Los Angeles city attorney, are vying for the job.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said he felt compelled to run because the City Attorney's Office - which prosecutes misdemeanors, not felonies - does not give him enough power to keep the public safe.
"Right now, I can't change the way City Hall is operated, because they're my clients," Trutanich said.
"I can't prosecute mortgage fraud and bank fraud and those who are wrongly foreclosing on homes; I can't take down the banks that are creating securities and lending issues and breaking pension plans and losing millions of dollars; and I can't go after child molesters, gang members and other predators, because all of those involve felonies."
While Trutanich is indeed the head prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles, he recently lost a court fight over how he could describe himself on the ballot. He wanted to use the title "Los Angeles chief prosecutor" but a judge struck that down, instead allowing "Los Angeles city prosecutor." His campaign rival had claimed the original term sought to mislead voters that he was already the district attorney for the county of Los Angeles.
In touting his candidacy, Trutanich noted the City Attorney's Office saved taxpayers millions of dollars by avoiding settlement payouts and by collecting debts, even as its staff was decimated by budget cuts.
Trutanich had made a campaign pledge in 2009 that he would not seek higher office until he had served two terms as city attorney. If he did, he said, he would take out a full-page newspaper ad with his photo and the words, "I am a liar," and donate $100,000 to a children's charity.
He has yet to finish his first term.
"That was a mistake," Trutanich now says of the promise.
"Things change," he added. "I'm guilty of not having a crystal ball - not lying."
He is trying to raise the money for the donation, but does not intend to take out the newspaper ad.
Cooley said the public should try to force Trutanich to be true to his promise.
"Someone should sue him and see if they can enforce that promise," Cooley said. "A lot of people voted in that election based on that promise. It was a campaign ploy or trick, and people were lured by it."
It was Cooley who persuaded Trutanich to leave private practice and run for city attorney.
In the search for his own successor, however, Cooley is spurning his old friend and instead endorsing his chief deputy, Jackie Lacey.
If elected, she would be the first person of color, and the first woman, to lead the office since it was founded in 1850.
Cooley, however, was less concerned about making history than about making sure he backs the candidate best suited for the job.
"Jackie Lacey is easily, easily, very well qualified to be D.A. based upon her experience in the office, her temperament, her acquired skills, her judgment, and her ability to collaborate with others in the criminal justice system," Cooley said.
Lacey lags in fundraising
Lacey, a Granada Hills resident, lags behind the far better known Trutanich in fundraising but expressed confidence voters "do not want a politician in the D.A.'s Office."
"Can you imagine someone so political in charge of the Public Integrity Unit?" she said. "That person would be susceptible to using that unit to go after their enemies."
"I believe that the citizens of L.A. County, as well as its prosecutors, deserve good, mature, sound leadership at the helm," Lacey added. "Some of my rival candidates are, quite frankly, bullies, and I don't think that type of relationship is good for working with people in the justice system."
Another contender for D.A. is Alan Jackson, whom Cooley describes as "one of our finest trial lawyers."
Jackson - who put away Phil Spector and the mastermind in the murder case of racing legend Mickey Thompson - said his skills would serve him well as D.A.
"The retirement of Steve Cooley would create a vacuum at the top of the office, and I think that vacuum should be filled by a tried-and-true veteran, seasoned prosecutor who understands what it means to perpetuate the mission of the office, which is ultimately to seek public safety for the community we serve."
Also running are deputy district attorneys Bobby Grace, Danette Meyers and John Breault, though the latter has not campaigned at all.
Grace prosecuted one of the most prolific serial killers in Los Angeles history, Chester Turner, in the murder of 10 women and an unborn child.
He said one of his top priorities as D.A. would be to battle corruption and fraud.
"In me, you've got an opportunity to pick somebody who's got fresh ideas, fresh approaches, and wants to see the D.A.'s Office move forward in a very progressive manner," Grace said.
Meyers, who prosecuted Lindsay Lohan, meanwhile, has a list of things that she believed Cooley could have done better as D.A., and vowed to address them if elected to replace him.
"The reason I'm running for D.A. is to institute change within the office, and I'd like the community to recognize that our office is a fair and just office."
For the most part, the candidates have roughly similar positions on a variety of issues.
All vowed to seek the death penalty in the most heinous cases if it remains the law in California, though a proposed ballot measure in November could change that.
They all embrace Cooley's three-strikes policy, which is to seek the maximum sentence of 25 years to life only if the third strike is a violent or serious felony, or if the criminal previously committed other heinous acts that would make him or her a danger to society.
They also support taking steps to help youths flourish in school and job training programs, and prevent truancy; and put more effort into prosecuting environmental and high-tech crimes.
Individually, Trutanich wants to create task forces against gangs, environmental crimes and graffiti. He also wants to create a neighborhood prosecutor program and ask state legislators to strengthen laws against sexual predators, among other plans.
Candidates tell goals
Lacey, meanwhile, vowed to be "progressive about alternative sentencing," including sending lower-level offenders to the successful Second Chance Women's Reentry Court, for example, where they can plead guilty to their crimes and enter treatment instead.
She also wants to create a dedicated unit for environmental crimes, and train more prosecutors to fight identity theft.
Jackson, on the other hand, believes criminals' sentences should not have to be shortened because of overcrowding in jails and prisons, "without due consideration to recidivism, the punishment that they should get, or to the rehabilitation they would have had if they had stayed in."
He is urging state legislators to let local counties enter into contracts to send their inmates to out-of-state facilities.
Grace called for "embracing rehabilitation and reentry programs" and partnering with organizations to boost ex-cons' chances of going straight.
Meyers wants reforms in realignment that would strengthen county supervision of parolees, particularly those who stole large amounts of money from particularly vulnerable victims, so they can pay back their debts. She also wants to send drug dealers to state prison instead of county jails.
Mark A.R. Kleiman, professor of public policy at UCLA, suggested voters look at who they believe is the best manager, not the best lawyer.
"This is the largest prosecutorial office in the country, so the most obvious qualification is managerial competence," he said.
"That's the difficulty with prosecutorial offices - they tend to be run by lawyers rather than by managers or by people who are interested in crime policy.
"So you wind up with somebody who has very good skills in persuading a jury and assembling evidence, but is not necessarily a very careful thinker about how to reduce crime."
By Christina Villacorte, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org, 213-974-8985, twitter.com/LADNvillacorte
Source: The San Gabriel Valley Tribune