Thirty years ago, Jackie Lacey ’82 got her “butt kicked” in court. The experience has made all the difference for the alumna who was elected as Los Angeles County District Attorney in 2012.
A few years out of law school at the time, she found herself thrown into court on her first day with the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office for the DUI trial of a woman who had “the best defense attorneys money could buy.”
The trial moved swiftly. Lacey concluded her closing argument feeling confident, until her supervising attorney turned and said, “Shut up — you’re getting your butt kicked, and you don’t even know it.’ ”
Hooked on a feeling
The woman walked on the charge.
“But I was so hooked,” Lacey told USC Gould School of Law students during a recent lunchtime visit sponsored by the Government Law Organization. “I felt like I was doing the work that I was designed and bred to do, which was to advocate. To advocate for the people; to advocate for law I believed in; to advocate for those who couldn’t advocate for themselves in the criminal justice system.”
“And that might sound strange coming from a prosecutor,” Lacey continued, “but there were a heck of a lot of poor victims. People who’d had their cars stolen, children who’d been molested, women who’d been beat up by their sole source of support. There are a whole lot of people that you can connect with and you can say, ‘I’m going to be your voice in that courtroom.’”
Rising through the ranks
Lacey joined the L.A. County D.A.’s Office in 1986 as a deputy district attorney. She took on management and executive roles in the office beginning in 2000 and was named chief deputy district attorney in 2011.
Asked by students which types of cases she preferred, Lacey noted the 11 murder cases, including a death-penalty race-based hate crime, she has tried.
Your bills don’t get paid while you’re in a murder trial; it’s all about the case.
“I must say I enjoyed working on those cases a lot, but I always saw a few more gray hairs on my head, and that’s because it takes over your life,” Lacey said. “Your bills don’t get paid while you’re in a murder trial; it’s all about the case. But I do find that they’re always engaging.”
Since becoming D.A., Lacey no longer has a caseload, but instead focuses on running the office of roughly 1,000 lawyers, 300 investigators and 800 support staff located in 30 different courthouses around the county. She is the first woman and first African-American to serve as LA County D.A. since the office was created in 1850. But beyond that legacy, Lacey said she wants to “be the best D.A.” by improving the office and making the justice system more fair and efficient.
One of the ways she accomplishes this is by expanding the alternative sentencing courts she helped the office establish five years ago to deal with specific non-violent offenders. The program launched with a pilot project aimed at women who committed technical violation of their release terms and expanded to include veterans.
In September, Lacey’s office announced a program to divert low-level offenders with mental illness from jail into treatment. The program offers transitional housing, medical treatment and job-hunting help to treat people with mental illness and keep them out of the system.
“People cannot help it that they are mentally ill; families are trying to reach out for help and don’t have any place to go,” said Lacey, who noted that the recidivism rate for the women’s alternative sentencing program dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent. “Those who are mentally ill present the biggest challenge [in the criminal justice system], but in my opinion, in my experience, it’s just the right thing to do.”