City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has avoided debating his rivals in the race for district attorney, leaving a big question mark about where he stands on public safety issues.
As the June 5 primary approaches, Trutanich is starting to fill in the blanks. In a 17-page “Blueprint for Justice,” the tough-talking city attorney looks to soften his image by tacking to the left on issues like prison realignment and juvenile justice.
So say goodbye to Carmen the Barbarian. Now it's Carmen the Humanitarian.
Trutanich's shift is most notable on the issue of realignment — the transfer of prisoners from state to local responsibility to alleviate prison overcrowding. Trutanich's opponents have all complained that the law was rushed through the Legislature without adequate local input. But in his position paper, Trutanich embraces it as a chance to change the justice system.
“Prison realignment is a train that's left the station,” Trutanich says. “It's here and we need to stop bemoaning it and look it as an opportunity to fundamentally transform our correctional system… One reason that we're in this mess is because our criminal justice system is over-reliant on incarceration.”
Trutanich has spent much of his tenure as city attorney trying to lock up political protesters, supergraphic installers and marijuana dispensary operators. So this is a substantial shift in attitude.
“What you see traditionally in races for district attorney is candidates trying to out-tough each other,” said John Shallman, Trutanich's campaign strategist. “What Trutanich has done is said we can be tough all day long, and I'm tough, but we gotta get smart.”
Trutanich's position on realignment drew a rebuke from the campaign of Alan Jackson, who wants to repeal the law and allow counties to send their inmates out of state.
“We cannot release prisoners early because we know they're going to commit crimes,” said John Thomas, Jackson's campaign manager. “Carmen's admitting to being soft on crime. You can't rehabilitate your way out of this mess.”
Jackie Lacey, the chief deputy D.A., argued that Trutanich had taken an “ill-informed position.”
“All of the insiders know that realignment has problems with implementation,” Lacey said. “To see it as this great gift — I'm not sure that's accurate.”
Trutanich also positions himself to the left on juvenile justice. Under state law, prosecutors have the discretion to file certain cases against juveniles in adult court. But Trutanich says he will not file any adult cases against juvenile offenders unless a judge first signs off on it in a “fitness” hearing.
“He copied that from me,” said Danette Meyers, one of five rivals in the D.A. race. “He's unbelievable.”
Meyers challenged Trutanich to begin showing up to debates to defend his positions in public.
“It's one thing to put something out there,” she said. “It's another thing to go before the electorate and say, 'I'm not afraid to tell you what my policies are, and I'm not afraid to address the criticisms you have.'”
Trutanich's “blueprint” was released to the L.A. Weekly after several requests for his positions on criminal justice issues. A number of the items seem borrowed from the poll-tested playbook of Rocky Delgadillo, the former city attorney.
For example, Trutanich proposes establishing “neighborhood prosecutors,” who would be assigned to police departments and courthouses around the county and charged with prosecuting nuisance cases. Delgadillo established the city's “neighborhood prosecutor” program in 2002. Under Trutanich's administration, the program has been cut in half due to help close a budget shortfall.
Trutanich also proposes expanding the D.A.'s anti-truancy program. Delgadillo make cracking down on truancy one of the signatures of his administration. Truancy has not been a priority of Trutanich's administration.
In his policy paper, Trutanich also vows to crack down on gangs. Delgadillo made that his signature issue, but it has been less of a focus under Trutanich. He has pursued far fewer gang injunctions, and gang convictions are down 31% on his watch.
“A lot of this sounds more focus group-tested than courtroom-tested,” said Thomas, Jackson's campaign manager. “It seems to me to be a bunch of fluff to cover up for a failed city attorney.”
Trutanich also wants to reestablish the D.A.'s environmental crimes unit, which was abolished on Steve Cooley's watch. He also promises to “strengthen and expand” the Public Integrity Unit,” and appoint a director to oversee public corruption cases.
The other major candidates — Jackson, Lacey, and Meyers — have all expressed support for Dave Demerjian, the current head of the public integrity unit. Lacey recently suggested that Trutanich might use the public integrity unit to “go after” his enemies.
Shallman said that while Trutanich also supports Demerjian, he won't make any decisions on personnel until after the election.