Monday, April 24, 2017 2017 Trailblazer Award
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey will accept the Trailblazer Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Leadership celebration on April 24, 2017 in Los Angeles.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY JACKIE LACEY
District Attorney Jackie Lacey has spent most of her professional life as a prosecutor, manager and executive in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
On Dec. 3, 2012, she was sworn in as the county’s 42nd District Attorney, becoming the first woman and first African-American to serve as Los Angeles County District Attorney since the office was established in 1850.
District Attorney Lacey was re-elected in 2016, becoming the first person in 60 years to run unopposed for the seat.
Her top priority is keeping the streets of Los Angeles County safe from violent and dangerous criminals. She is committed to safeguarding our children from human sex trafficking, our seniors from financial elder abuse and our communities from environmental crimes that threaten our health and our livelihood.
District Attorney Lacey leads a broad-based coalition to improve how the criminal justice system interacts with individuals experiencing mental illness.
A Los Angeles native and graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, she leads a staff of approximately 1,000 lawyers, 300 investigators and 800 support staff employees.
She Leads the Way Toward Justice
for both Victims and Defendants
by Carol Caley
March 30, 2017
District Attorney Lacey, you’ve been a champion on behalf of victims of human trafficking, elder financial abuse and fraud schemes. You’ve worked on behalf of fair and humane treatment for mentally ill incarcerated adults. You supported establishing a training program for law enforcement officers on how to interact with people in a mental health crisis. You’ve gone after those who perpetrate environmental crimes and have prosecuted government officials who violate the public’s trust. You’ve sought legislative reforms on such issues as Three Strikes and violent predator laws. You have worked to engage and educate people about the criminal justice system. With so many pressing issues, and work to be done on so many fronts, how do you prioritize?
Before I first got elected in 2012, I had to ask myself the question, what are you running for and why? I was about a month into my run for office when someone asked me that question. I felt like a deer in the headlights. I had been working in the trenches of the DA’s office for so long, always working under another leader, and fulfilling another person’s vision. I hadn’t done soul-searching about what I wanted to accomplish: Why am I running, and how will the DA’s office be better?
After you did the soul-searching, were there specific areas that you wanted to concentrate on?
I decided early on to pick four areas. Some of these were from my personal experiences, others were areas where we could improve. The personal ones were cybercrime and identity theft. I had been the victim of identity theft. I also wanted to warn seniors about financial fraud, because my mother had fallen prey to a telephone scammer who said her grandson was in jail. I thought, if she was preyed on after all my warnings, other seniors out there could be too. I was interested in mental health. I wanted to know: why did twenty percent of people we incarcerate also have untreated mental illness? Was there a link, and could we do better? And finally, I had an interest in environmental crimes—making sure our environment was protected, so that we could have clean air and water, and ensure that companies and entities obey the laws.
So these four issues are the centerpiece of your work?
From day one, there are issues you inherit, and there are issues you want to address. Those four, I came in on, but human trafficking was something that came forward. I was elected the same year that a law was changed to better help victims, so I embraced it and ran with it. As an elected DA, I know that my time will go by very fast. I have mentored other DAs who are new to the role. I ask them, at the end of your time, what do you want your legacy to be? How will things be better after you’ve led such a large and prestigious organization?
||“Our administration has made outcomes fairer for defendants, but we’ve also not forgotten victims.”
So it was both personal interests you felt strongly about, and issues where justice could be served in a new area that guided you. Which issues meant the most to you?
The mental health issue meant the most. Someone who is seriously mentally ill, and whose behavior causes them to end up homeless, or in the criminal justice system, really needed help. I in my heart of hearts, feel that the business of seeking justice is the right business for me. It’s something I was born to do. But I felt that incarcerating people who are sick, because they are sick, and keeping them in longer because they have a mental illness, was just wrong.
You’ve made progress by spearheading a training program for law enforcement officers. Tell us about that.
The situation was a failure of our system’s ability to find health resources for those who are sick and need treatment. This program started with Terry McDonald, of the Sheriff’s Department, asking me to lead a discussion. What started as a very small group ended up in a short period of time as a large group of stakeholders. We created the Office of Diversion and Re-Entry, and got $150 million allocated from the Board of Supervisors. We also secured a $1 million grant in the first year of operation, as well as setting up a training program for officers. It really sparked a movement.
You once said that you’re doing work that you were “designed and bred to do,” which is to advocate. You speak up for justice for victims. But you also work on behalf of offenders. Can you share more about how you see yourself as an advocate?
Our administration has made outcomes fairer for defendants, but we’ve also not forgotten victims. We’ve increased victims’ service resources by about 50% since I got in. There was a time when there was a shift of prisoners from state prison to county jails. But the law forgot to include restitution to victims. So we took the lead and fixed that law. In addition, we’ve hired 100 more victims’ services advocates than we previously had, so we’ve doubled our resources for victims. We’ve kicked it up a notch. People might think those two initiatives—making justice system fairer for the defendant, and also looking out for victims—are mutually exclusive. I don’t see it that way. We’re advocates for justice.
Justice works both ways.
Yes, the justice system is a very holistic and organic system. We have fought to set up a unit that would look at cases where people were wrongfully convicted and sent away for life. We’re also looking out for victims who have lost someone to murder. District attorneys are the quarterbacks of the justice system. We have a lot of discretion, a lot of responsibility. The office needs to fulfill our mission, and do it in a fair and just manner.
|“You’ve got to be an aerobic listener. I learn so much more when I shut up.”
You’ve worked in some pretty volatile situations, such as speaking at public meetings to communicate your department’s role in handling events such as officer-involved shootings, where emotions run high. Sometimes you’re called on to defuse things. You’ve faced some vocal critics in the community and public scrutiny by the media. As a leader in such a high-stakes profession, what leadership characteristics or personal qualities allow a leader to manage well in this kind of “leadership in a fishbowl” atmosphere?
I study other successful leaders relentlessly. I devour leadership books. I used to read a lot of fiction, but I gave those up. Also, I learned a lot by failing, and analyzing my failures. I go to leadership summits, from national to worldwide. There are some basic things that we all need to remember, whether we lead a family or lead a large corporation. You’ve got to get your own house in order and lead by example. You can’t do unethical or illegal things and expect your people to do as I say, not as I do. You’ve got to be an aerobic listener. I learn so much more when I shut up. Then I can truly hear and empathize. That’s hard for a leader, because people expect you to speak up and tell them what to think. That’s not a role of leadership.
You’ve given a lot of consideration to how to lead.
I have. Also, people know that I’m a Christian. I pray a lot. I get up in the morning and think, oh God, I can’t bear to look at the schedule—how am I going to get through this day? There’s a schedule, and there’s what actually happens. Prayer, meditation, alone time is very important for a leader—it’s probably just as important as face time with your people. You’ve got to think about how you’re going to inspire and motivate, get the best out of people. I love this topic of leadership.
You’ve said that you’ve learned a lot by failing, and are a stronger leader for that. What’s been your biggest challenge in your current role?
There’s a lot to accomplish in a short period of time. I just got re-elected to a second 4-year term. There are no term limits, but eventually it will be time for me to ride out into the sunset. It takes time to make a large-scale change in an organization. You don’t just put a policy on a piece of paper and expect there to be change. Oftentimes, I don’t feel there are enough minutes in the day for me to accomplish everything. I’m constantly adjusting priorities as I go along. You’ve got to take care of yourself as a leader: you’re supposed to exercise, eat right, do checkups at the doctor, yet to do these things, time is a challenge. Many women like me have different roles. On the weekend, I’m a spouse, a daughter-in-law who’s helping with a 90-year-old. I’m a mother of adult kids who still need encouragement and advice. I’m a friend. I wish I had a lot more time.
So time is your biggest challenge. What’s been your biggest reward?
Yesterday, an attorney who heads the public defender’s office said to me: ‘Jackie, we’ve been trying to get permission to hire a psychiatric social worker to work with our lawyers on cases with mentally ill clients. Because of you, we finally got that.’ That’s my greatest reward: the baby steps of progress that I’ve made using the power of this office. She has no idea how happy that made me feel.
||“In the long range, we will have a woman president. We will continue to make progress. We should be encouraging young girls, and all women, to give all they can for the good of women.”
So this is something you worked toward for years?
Yes, and when it finally happens—you finally get movement, money, or you convince somebody that this is worthwhile—I hear a symphony playing. Or when I’m mentoring others, I might hear someone say they’ve decided to go to law school because of a talk we had. I really like that.
Can you share with us an important professional lesson you’ve learned?
It’s hard to manage human beings. As a leader, you’re going to have a front row seat to personnel problems. An employee may have disappointed you, said or did something they shouldn’t have. What I’ve learned is to cut people some slack rather than come down harshly. There are always extenuating circumstances or another side to the story, and it helps to deal with personnel issues with some grace. Maybe they deserve some kind of discipline, but we need to take a deep breath and look at it very carefully. I also learned to take the long view. Don’t just look at decisions in terms of the immediate outcome, but ask, where are we going, and what’s the long-term outcome of decisions you make?
You’re the first woman leader since 1850 to serve in the LA County District Attorney role. LA was recently the site of a peaceful demonstration, the Women’s March, on January 21. What do you think the future holds for women’s leadership?
The long view is, there may be obstacles and setbacks, but we’ll never go back to the way things were. Too many women have been set free. Too many women have tasted success. They have hit the ceiling, and they are ready to burst through. In the long range, we will have a woman president. We will continue to make progress. We should be encouraging young girls, and all women, to evaluate what they’re doing, and encourage them to give all they can for the good of women. We have to keep our eyes on the prize and press forward. I cannot see us going backwards. As Alicia Keys, the musical artist would say, "This girl is on fire!"
This article has been edited for length and clarity.