Former public defender Rachel Rossi wants to become LA District Attorney

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Rachel Rossi. Credit: Rachel Rossi’s campaign for LA District Attorney 2020.

The California primary is less than three months away, and one big race on the ballot is for LA County District Attorney. Two candidates on the left are challenging Jackie Lacey, the current D.A. 

One of the challengers, Rachel Rossi, has no prosecutorial experience. She’s a former public defender for both LA County and the federal government. She tells Press Play that the biggest thing LA County needs is change from the status quo. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What does being LA’s top prosecutor mean for her? 

Rossi: We need a prosecutor who has seen the other side of the system, seen the impact of the criminal justice system on families and communities, and who is willing to change that day to day, and to have a vision for L.A. County that is more just. 

… One of the things I would focus on as D.A., if you look at the mental health diversion that exists in L.A. County, we see very, very low numbers of people suffering from mental illness getting accepted into a diversion that exists. 

I think the first problem with that is that the district attorney makes a recommendation to the program on who gets in and who goes to jail. So the D.A. has a very, very large voice in who gets treatment and who goes to jail when it comes to mental illness. 

I would change it so that the district attorney has to consider the advice of a mental health practitioner in making that decision. Right now, the D.A. just looks at the charge, the criminal history of this person, but doesn't have the actual input from a mental health provider on whether or not this person could benefit from treatment vs. should be in jail. 

Does Rossi believe Jackie Lacey’s current program is not working?

I think the program is great. I think we are not seeing enough admissions into the program. There was a Department of Mental Health study that found that almost 3000 of the people in our jails right now who suffer from mental illness could safely be transitioned into community-based services. If that's the case, then we are not utilizing community-based services enough, and we are over-criminalizing those with mental illness in our community.

Are there enough beds to divert 3000 people to community-based services? 

Beds and resources have been an issue in L.A. County for some time. And we have to look at where we are spending our resources. When we are spending $800 million a year to incarcerate people in L.A. County jails, why are resources being overspent on incarceration, and why are we not providing enough resources toward community-based services? 

I think that's one of the things that the district attorney has to have a leading voice in: expanding the resources to programs that exist, and expanding the resources to the Office of Diversion and Reentry, and shifting the way that we look at criminal justice. It shouldn't just be let's spend as much as we can to incarcerate, and incarcerate as much and as high amounts of prison time as we can do. It should be let's find justice, let's incarcerate the people who really should be incarcerated, and let's provide treatment to the people who need treatment. 

Why does Rossi believe she is the better candidate than former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon, who's also running on a progressive platform and has prosecutorial experience?

I have more experience than all the candidates in this race. It's just different experience. I'm the only candidate who's been in federal court. I'm the only candidate who's seen the other side of the criminal justice system. And I'm the only candidate who's worked in Washington, D.C. on criminal justice reform policies.

… We need a prosecutor who seeks justice. And sometimes justice means incarceration. Sometimes justice means humanity, treatment, programs, therapy, services. And as a former public defender, I've seen all the courtrooms in L.A., both county and federal. And I would bring a different vision and a different humanity to the role of prosecutor. 

What about victims of crime? 

One of my main platform issues is supporting victims, listening to survivors, and providing access to restorative justice options if that is what they wish, and providing notice, and providing a voice to victims in the criminal justice system. 

Right now, my experience being in the L.A. County courts was seeing victims sort of propped up as a tool to gain a conviction. I didn't see a prosecutorial policy of listening to victims, supporting victims, or providing them the resources that they need to get back on their feet, to get treatment, to get services, to get help. And that is, I think, extremely important. 

I am not running simply as just a progressive prosecutor. I'm running because I believe L.A. County can see a new vision of justice, and that is for everybody. 

Jackie Lacey has not brought charges against any police officer who’s been involved in an officer-related homicide. Would Rossi do otherwise? Does Rossi think there are officers who should have been prosecuted?

The problem with our current criminal justice system in L.A. County is that we have an inherent conflict of interest when we have D.A.s who work alongside law enforcement every day, then making the decision whether or not to prosecute law enforcement. 

I believe that the first step for our prosecutor needs to be getting rid of that conflict of interest, and providing a separation in who's making the decision to prosecute law enforcement. 

The way that I would do that today is by utilizing current law to appoint independent prosecutors in cases where law enforcement’s use of force results in death. I believe in all those cases, there should be a separate independent office that is taking a look at that case, investigating that case, and deciding whether or not charges should be filed.

In all other cases involving law enforcement’s accused misconduct, there is a Justice Integrity Division in the D.A.’s office today, but … it does not have any separation or ethical divide from the prosecutors who work alongside that law enforcement every day. I would increase the ethical divide between the Justice Integrity Division and the rest of the office, including by putting prosecutors in that office who have civil rights experiences, who have background in prosecuting law enforcement, including a geographic separation. That office should be separate and apart from the rest of the district attorney's office. 

Rossi’s campaign manager ran the campaign of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who’s gotten into hot water for rehiring a deputy who worked on his campaign and was fired for suspected domestic violence. There's also a $60 million or so deficit at the sheriff's office. So is there a problem that Rossi and Villanueva share the same campaign manager? 

No, not at all. I think Paula Ramirez is a fantastic campaign manager. She ran a fantastic campaign with a candidate who fooled her just as he fooled a lot of L.A. County. A lot of people that voted for Alex Villanueva believed that he would bring change, and believe that he would be a reformer to our justice system. And he's not. 

And unfortunately, oftentimes, we don't know what our elected officials will do after they're elected. And that's why my background, again, is so important. Because my background and experience reflects an entire career focused on the people and focused on defending people. And it reflects what I will do in the future. 

Does Rossi not support Sheriff Alex Villanueva?  

I have a lot of concerns about the sheriff's department, about what Sheriff Villanueva has been doing. And I think that we need a district attorney who is vocal about that, and who is standing up for justice again and for a sheriff's department that has some checks and balances on it. 

What will be Rossi’s role in trying to reduce homelessness, or trying to break the cycle of homeless people being arrested, released, and rearrested?

What we need in L.A. County is to stop prosecuting the homeless, and to start focusing on providing resources and community services to our house-less neighbors. And we also need to focus on holding accountable the people who cause homelessness by evictions and raising rents in illegal or unethical ways. 

As district attorney, I would stop prosecuting crimes such as sleeping on the sidewalk. But I would also assemble a houselessness fraud task force to investigate big developers, large corporate landlords that are raising rents, evicting people, and starting to be the large part of the homelessness crisis in our county. 

Jackie Lacey has the support of law enforcement unions in L.A., Congressman Adam Schiff, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Mayor Eric Garcetti. The L.A. Democratic Party has endorsed Gascon, the other candidate in the race. So does Rossi see this race as an uphill battle for her? 

As the grassroots outsider candidate, I wouldn't have an easy pathway to victory in the same way as if I had a lot of money or establishment support. But I have the support of the people. And at the end of the day, that's what matters at the ballot box. 

I believe that I am the best candidate for this seat because I am the grassroots candidate, and because I have the support of the people. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy