One-on-One with Jackie Lacey By Tony Medley

Photo by Tony Medley

District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

Jackie Lacey graduated from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles and received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at UC Irvine. She received her J.D. from USC in 1982. She joined the District Attorney’s office in 1986. After working as a prosecutor for more than ten years, and working in administration for more than ten years, on March 12, 2011 she was appointed to chief deputy, the number two person in the DA’s office and was elected District Attorney in December, 2012. She is a member of LA 5 Rotary Club.

I met her in her office on the 18th floor of the District Attorney’s office in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on Temple Street in Los Angeles. She had just returned from a major drug bust that was initiated by her office and I asked her about it.

Jackie: Our office got involved with a major narcotics investigation that captured 24 kilos of cocaine along with a bunch of cash and shut down a major drug dealer.

Tony: How does that work procedurally? How does the DAs office get involved in that? Is this normally a police matter?

Jackie: Right. We get tips. The state Bureau of Narcotics has been shut down due to budget cuts. There are a lot of informants out there who have information but who no longer have a Bureau of Narcotics enforcement to turn to. So our folks are trained and they got a tip. We got the information and acted upon it and seized an incredible amount of cocaine and are very excited about it.

Tony: Is there anything in the office of being the District Attorney that has surprised you even though you’ve been in administration for many years?

Jackie: What surprises me about the job the most is the demand. This is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. You’re constantly reading the papers and getting information, making decisions, evaluating and reevaluating, having conversations about this office or how to run an office this size literarily maybe 90% of the time, if not doing something about it then thinking about it.

Tony: What kind of decisions do you have to make as District Attorney?

Jackie: I make decisions about our responses to correspondence. Let me give you an example. Right now I’m dealing with realignment (a law that shifted the responsibility for some categories of state prisoners from the state to the counties). We need a definition of recidivism. We have to figure out whether a shift of prisoners to the County level is working, whether the crime rates are going up or down, whatever. I spend a lot of time thinking and meeting with people talking about how can we capture the data and how will we define recidivism. Before realignment, Tony, CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) always put out these recidivism reports and they defined California’s recidivism rate at 60%, which was really high compared nationally. They defined it as you recidivate when you return to state custody for any reason, for parole violation or a new case. Now that there is a certain category of crime, criminals that can’t return to state prison, can only return to county jail, how do you define it? We have to come up with a definition as close to what we had before in order to determine whether crime is going up.

I’m advocating that we include what is called “flash incarceration,” which occurs when you are being monitored by a probation officer and your probation officer says, “You tested dirty; you didn’t show up for this so I’m going to put you in custody for 1 to 10 days, depending on what your violation is.” I believe that ought to be counted towards the recidivism rate. Probation disagrees.

Tony: Who makes the final decision?

Jackie: I think what you’re going to see is more than one report on recidivism.

Tony: Let’s move on to something else. Now I’m going to ask you a question I’m sure nobody has ever asked you. Civil litigation is really awful. People file verified complaints, where they swear to the allegations set forth in their complaints under penalty of perjury. They lie all the time. Does your office ever prosecute that?

Jackie: It depends. We have a standard of proof with regard to perjury. You have to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Under the cloak of civil litigation all kinds of things can be said. There are all kinds of privileges. So, in general, we don’t use our resources to prosecute people who file civil cases just because the opposing party says they are lying. That’s always going to be the answer, right? That’s why you are in civil litigation.

Tony: What if it is black and white? What if it is clear that somebody lied?

Jackie: If the proper case were brought to our office; if witnesses were there, we would, and we have prosecuted perjury in the past.

Tony: What do you mean by a proper case?

Jackie: There’s got to be witnesses. It’s got to be a dead-bang provable lie. We’ve got limited resources so we have to prioritize when we decide to prosecute.

Tony: What do you like better, litigating or administrating?

Jackie: I love administrating, I really do. The opportunity to set policy, to motivate, to inspire, to leave a legacy here is wonderful. I loved litigating. The last case I litigated was a hate crime murder case. I loved the fact that I was representing the people of the State of California and really had hit my stride. I feel that that same sort of opportunity is presenting itself right now but on a much grander scale.

Tony: I’m not asking you to criticize Steve Cooley, whom we both greatly admire, but what do you feel needs to be done that hasn’t been done?

Jackie: People probably get tired of hearing me say this, but I never get tired of saying it. Steve Cooley left this office in great shape. He personally mentored me for 12 years. The way I have always seen my role is to want to protect his legacy and to protect this office and to build upon what he has already done. The challenges for Steve were different than what they are for me. Steve did not really have the challenge of figuring out, now that realignment is here, how to make it work. He did not have court closures and I do. He started with high-tech crime and cybercrime. Cybercrime is getting worse nationally so I think I have to be much more aggressive. So I have steadfastly maintained that the office is in incredibly good shape so there’s nowhere to go right now but up.

Tony: Do you read much? If so, what?

Jackie: Right now I’m reading a book, A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age by Richard Traynor, and I only get 10 pages a month. It’s about the history of the justice system here in the DAs office. If I have time to read, Tony. I’m reading recidivism reports, probation reports, how they’re doing with realignment. I love to read, but I feel guilty if I have the time to read if I’m not reading work related stuff.

Tony: Isn’t there a danger of burnout?

Jackie: Sure. Absolutely. I’m working on that. (laughs)

Tony: What authors did you like when you did read?

Jackie: I love Dean Koontz. I love reading Nora Roberts romance novels because they are such escapism. I’m reading a book now on my iPad called Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg about how women advance through corporate structure.

Tony: What movies do you like?

Jackie: I just saw a movie that I really liked called Silver Linings Playbook. I love that movie. It was my kind of movie, a love story plus a socially conscious movie about mental illness and the family structure. I’m probably about four or five years behind in terms of modern culture on television, but I just discovered Mad Men. I just finished season one. They’re probably at season five, I think, now. I love that show. It’s an interesting study in human nature and what we were really like as a country back in the ‘50s.

Tony: Has anything happened here in this job that you had not anticipated?

Jackie: No. Not really. I put together my leadership team, which I think is crucial. You have to have people whom you trust, whom you believe in, who are competent to do the job. We have some people who worked for Steve Cooley in his administration, but there are also a lot of fresh ideas here and new people in leadership. I think that at least 50% of accomplishing goals is putting the right people in jobs.

Tony: What are your goals?

Jackie: I have five basic goals:

  1. Get accurate information on realignment;
  2. Expanded use of alternate sentencing courts because they save bed space and money and they are better places to put these people;
  3. Expanded environmental crimes;
  4. Warn my seniors about financial scams;
  5. Do something about the cyber criminals.

Tony: You’re a double pioneer. Jackie Robinson just broke the color line in baseball but you are both the first woman and the first African-American District Attorney.

Jackie: I’m aware of the fact that I’m the 42nd District Attorney and Jackie Robinson’s number was 42. I need a jersey. Where can I get a jersey? (laughs)

Tony: Do you feel any pressure being the first woman and the first African-American to hold the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney?

Jackie: Absolutely. I want to do well. I don’t want people to say, “She was the first woman but was she a good District Attorney?” It’s much more important to me to be remembered as leaving this office in a much better shape and accomplishing things. Yes, there is a lot of pressure. If I do a good job people won’t hesitate about electing another African-American or another qualified woman.

Tony: Have you felt any resentment against you?

Jackie: I don’t. Our office is more than 50% women. It’s very diverse. It’s almost been six months and I’ve really been made to feel very welcome here. There isn’t a week that goes by without someone saying, “I’m really so happy to have you as the District Attorney.”