Three candidates for L.A. District Attorney debated public safety issues on Saturday afternoon. But once again, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich was not among them.
Trutanich, the leading fundraiser in the race, also skipped the first debate, back in November. At the time, he was still claiming publicly that he had not decided whether to run. Now that's he officially in the race, what's his excuse?
In his absence, the other three top contenders had a civil encounter, drawing distinctions on issues like prison realignment, the death penalty, and juvenile justice reform.
This was the first debate since Mario Trujillo dropped out, and his absence leaves a hole at the liberal-reform end of the political spectrum. The remaining candidates are all more conservative, both in terms of policy and their approach.
The closest candidate to Trujillo's views is Danette Meyers, a career prosecutor who has the backing of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Meyers has a tough demeanor, emphasizing the number of murder trials and death penalty cases she's prosecuted. But she's also built her campaign around reforming the way the D.A.'s office treats juvenile offenders, arguing that too many are sent to the adult system.
At the debate, she was the only candidate to express concern about prison overcrowding, which came up in the context of the state's “realignment” of non-violent offenders from state prison to county supervision.
“Prisons are overcrowded,” Meyers said. “Even Republicans agree we cannot keep people in state prison forever. We cannot spend all of our money incarcerating people, because at some point they're going to get out.”
Alan Jackson, the only Republican in the race, countered that the state should allow counties to address their overpopulation problem by contracting with jails in other states. He also took aim at those who see prison realignment as an opportunity to improve county re-entry programs.
“It's an opportunity for disaster,” Jackson said. “We must get prisoners off the streets… We have to have the ability to deal with the criminal element.”
Jackie Lacey, the chief deputy under D.A. Steve Cooley, came down in the middle, arguing for better monitoring of prisoners who have been released.
“We have to track who's in our community,” Lacey said. “If someone is being released, we need to know where they are.”
The same pattern emerged on the death penalty. Meyers took the most “liberal” position among the three, arguing that the system is broken and should be reformed. Meyers suggested that death penalty prosecutions be limited to a smaller subset of murders, such as those involving the death of a police officer or the torture of a child.
Jackson took the most conservative approach, arguing vehemently that the death penalty has a profound deterrent effect. And Lacey ended up in the middle, expressing concern that appeals take too long, but not arguing for any changes in the way cases are handled at the local level.
Lacey has Cooley's endorsement, and were she to win it appears her administration would be tantamount to a fourth Cooley term. Asked what she would change about Cooley's office, she mentioned “transparency” and identity theft — not major items.
Jackson, meanwhile, said he would repair the “broken relationship” with the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which has been a major source of conflict within the office under Cooley. He also mentioned juvenile justice reform, saying that he — like Meyers — would like to see fewer juveniles prosecuted as adults.
Meyers said she would end the practice of punishing prosecutors by sending them to the juvenile division. Instead, she said she would stock the division with deputies who actually want to serve there.
Unlike the other two, she also took direct aim at Cooley, alleging that he has promoted people because they “went out drinking” with him. She also alleged that Cooley has gone easy on some of the scandals within the Sheriff's Department because Cooley is friends with Sheriff Lee Baca.
This being Los Angeles, the candidates were also asked how they would handle celebrity cases. Each said they would eliminate any appearance of preferential treatment for celebrities. The question gave Jackson the opportunity to mention his handling of the Phil Spector case, which he trumpeted as the first successful prosecution of a celebrity on a major case in Los Angeles in 40 years. Meyers touted her efforts to throw the book at Lindsay Lohan.
“There was no celebrity justice going on there,” Meyers said.
The debate was hosted by the Peace Officers Research Association of California, and moderated by Dave Bryan of CBS Los Angeles. Two other candidates, Bobby Grace and John Breault, were excluded because PORAC deemed them not to be viable, based on lackluster fundraising.