L.A. County will go to the polls on March 3 to elect their District Attorney to a four-year term. Incumbent Jackie Lacey is running for a third term, but there are two major challengers to her campaign. The Los Angeles Loyolan interviewed one of those challengers, Rachel Rossi, to learn more about her campaign. This interview was shortened due to length.
Cristobal Spielmann (C.S.): Why did you decide to run for District Attorney in L.A. County?
Rachel Rossi (R.R.): So, I've been very focused on criminal justice ever since I was in college and I did an internship in a public defender's office. The biggest thing [I saw] that I think was the most impactful to me at that time was the racial disparities in our jails. Ever since then, that's what drove me to be a public defender and that's what drove me to go to the Hill [Washington, D.C.] and learn about criminal justice policy. All those experiences really pointed me to the fact that you can fight as a public defender, you can change the laws as a legislator, but at the end of the day, the real reform is at the hands of the prosecutor. The prosecutor has the power to decide what to file, what to charge and I saw this movement of public defenders running for prosecutor across the country and thought, "This is how we get true reform, is if we change who the prosecutor is."
R.R.: Absolutely. I am proud of that fact because I believe that is why I am so needed in this seat. I think that if we elect more of the same, then we'll get more of the same, and if we truly want to see reform, we need to go in a different direction. So, I'm running because of my experience seeing the other side of the system, seeing the impact of the system on people and the power of a criminal case being filed against a person and what that does to families. In addition to that, I'll say one of the things that a public defender has the ability to do is to not only understand how a case has to be prosecuted, but to understand the other side of where the holes are in a case. Having the public defender perspective would make me a stronger prosecutor as well.
C.S.: You’ve been endorsed by L.A.’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, specifically by its Prison Abolition committee. Do you believe that prison abolitionism is a feasible philosophy to bring over to the D.A.’s office?
R.R.: I believe that no one really knows if prison abolition would ever be possible in L.A. County. I believe we can work toward de-incarceration [sic], but at this point no one really believes that we're we'd be able to have a society in L.A. County with no prisons. I do understand that, within the prison abolition movement, there's an understanding that every step that we take toward reform has to have the understanding of not furthering the problem by creating more incarceration and having an ideal of abolition in the back of your mind, but today, where we are in L.A. County, that's not a realistic option. We do need incarceration, we do need prisons and that is an important function of our D.A.'s office as well. Part of what I'm running on is a platform that if we stop the over-incarceration of low-level offenses, then we can devote resources where they really should be devoted and that's serious and violent crimes in our county.
C.S.: You and your closest ideological opponent George Gascón are both challenging incumbent Jackie Lacey as progressives, and you two share similar beliefs like ending cash bail and not pursuing the death penalty, even in extreme cases. What makes you different from him?
R.R.: Two things. First, it is that my perspective gives me a completely different view of the criminal justice system, having first been in the courtrooms in L.A. County, and second, being a public defender and seeing the other side of the system and seeing the policy side of criminal justice reform. But the second thing is [that] I'm the candidate in this race talking about specific reforms in L.A. County. I'm the one talking about L.A.'s future. A lot of what you hear with the other two candidates in the race, George and Jackie, is bickering over the past and arguing about who did it right and who did it wrong in the past and I'm the one talking about L.A.'s future.
C.S.: LMU's a school that's defined by social justice and also by its Jesuit values. How would you define social justice?
R.R.: I think social justice means moving toward a system that works for everyone, not just for the few. I also would say that my perspective, in some ways, derives from my faith. I'll say, I did go to Pepperdine Law School and went to Christian schools for undergrad, which have formed my understanding in some ways because I think when our justice system is failing the most marginalized people in our community, then it's not a justice system for all.
So when we see that 80% of people in our L.A. County jails are black and Latino ... and that one in three people in our jails is suffering from mental illness, then we don't have a justice system that is working for all and we don't have a justice system that is working properly because it's criminalizing poverty and mental health issues.
So to me, social justice means working together with advocates [and] with community members, impacted folks and groups that are working [and] studying the criminal justice system and also working with law enforcement to find ways where we can create a justice system that works equally for all.
C.S.: When Lacey was first elected in 2012 and again in 2016 [during the primaries and excluding the runoff election for D.A. in 2012], less than half of eligible and registered voters voted in those elections. Independent of the D.A.'s office, how would you encourage those numbers to reach majority levels?
R.R.: Absolutely. I think that it's so important that we get the word out and talk to people about the need to vote, and I'll tell you, I think that's been one of the most exciting things in this race. Because of who I am, because I'm a little bit younger, because I am both black and Latina, I've been able to be in a lot of communities where I can talk to people in a different way than the other candidates in this race and encourage people to vote from the same point of understanding a lot of barriers. I have to say, so many people have told me that this is going to be their first time voting because they're excited about a D.A. race, and I think that that's really exciting, and I think that one of the ways we can increase voter participation is by having people on the ballot who are younger or reflect the community. I'm the first former public defender to run for prosecutor [in L.A. County], and this was never an option before, and so it definitely has opened a lot of people's eyes to what a prosecutor is and caused a lot people to get engaged who otherwise would not have.
C.S.: Lastly, many college students at LMU are going to be voting for the first time, not only in this primary, but in an election in general. What's one piece of advice you would give to those students who maybe are interested in the social justice movement or who are interested in local politics — what's one piece of advice you would give to those interested students?
R.R.: It's actually a very practical point that I think is something I would do myself when voting. Number one, don't get overwhelmed, and number two, try to find creative ways to start to understand all of the initiatives and all of the individuals on the ballot. Some of the things you can do are [to] divide up issues, divide up ballots and ballot initiatives and have different friends research and look into them or divide up races. Make it a party and get together and talk about the candidates and find ways to make it less overwhelming to make it more of a fun process because I think one of the biggest deterrents for voting, especially with this election, is [that] there's so many races, nobody knows who the judges are, it just sometimes is overwhelming and it makes you feel frustrated if you go to the ballot and you're not sure who you're voting for and you're not confident in what choice you're making. Not getting overwhelmed and working together to make it a fun process I think is key.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a sophomore environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.