At age 22, Chaquitta Boyce got in a car with her cousin — a gang member — which contained (unbeknownst to her) stolen property.
No charges were filed against her after three court dates. But, according to Boyce the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office filed charges against her without her knowledge in 2015 “for a crime I didn’t commit” and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
By 2018, after living in a YWCA shelter for a while, the single mother found a place to live in Van Nuys and, now attending Glendale Community College, thought she had turned a corner.
But one night when returning to her car in the college’s parking lot, she found two police officers near the vehicle.
They asked for her name and, after running a check of her identification, “I was arrested that day,” Boyce said. She spent eight months in jail and now has a felony on her record.
“This is a flawed system,” said the 28-year-old during a recent forum on the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney at Los Angeles Valley College. Boyce then proceeded to question the two candidates present at the event hosted by the League of Women’s Voters.
“If elected, how will this change?” she asked George Gascon and Rachel Rossi. Incumbent Jackie Lacey declined to attend, organizers said.
After expressing sympathy for Boyce’s situation, Gascon — a former LAPD assistant chief and San Francisco District Attorney — responded by saying, “We have a DA’s office that is out of control” and that if elected, his office would work under a “presumption of release” when people are arrested.
Gascon went on to say, “We incarcerate 25% more [in LA County] than the rest of the state,” and has pledged to reform the county DA’s office, advocating for less punishing sentencing.
Gascon, who is endorsed by Sen. Kamala Harris, co-wrote Proposition 47, which reclassified many theft and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and allowed people serving time for those crimes to petition for their release.
Rossi, a former county and federal public defender, also pledges to bring a “different vision” to the office.
She told Boyce that one of her plans is “to clear out old warrants and dismiss them.” In addition Rossi, supported by numerous clergy members and leaders of Latino and black organizations, said she wants to institute “early screening for cases to determine if they should proceed, not coerce you into pleading. That is not justice.”
Carlos Zepeda, a UC Irvine student, also faces a legal situation.
He grew up in Westlake, near downtown Los Angeles, and admitted he was in “dangerous company” during his youth. One day, Zepeda said, he and his friends were caught writing graffiti on a wall and “they charged me with a felony.”
He posted a $6,000 bail and was eventually charged with a misdemeanor. He said he’s turned his life around but that charge now hangs over his record.
“I tried to get my case dismissed because now it’s a problem, it’s an obstacle,” Zepeda said, but so far hasn’t been able to do so.
Both Gascon and Boyce say they oppose cash bail.
Gascon says there’s no “connection to cash and whether you’re going to be a danger or risk of flight.”
Rossi — who said that Zepeda’s case is a “prime example of overcharging” — added that she would abolish cash bail, and noted there is no link “between public safety and how much money is in your pocket.”
She also wants to create a division of diversion and restorative justice that would apply in cases such as Zepeda’s, where an apology or another form of lesser punishment would serve better than time in jail.
Another subject where both Gascon and Rossi agree is opposing police violence, and creating a “no-call list” for police officers caught lying to serve as witnesses in cases.
This issue has directed great criticism toward the incumbent Lacey, who has faced weekly protests from the organization Black Lives Matter over her decision not to charge LAPD officers and Sheriff’s deputies in controversial deadly shootings of black men.
In 2012, Lacey became the first woman and first African-American to become the Los Angeles County DA, an office she’s now held for eight years. She is supported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Adam Schiff.
Lacey touts her top reform measure as working to divert the mentally ill into treatment programs instead of jail, and recently dismissed about 66,000 marijuana convictions dating back to the 1960s.
But she has opposed less punishable sentences and programs for early release because she argues this would lead to an increase in crime.
Whoever wins will be running the largest prosecutor’s office in the country, and one that has come to be at the center of many controversial cases.
If neither Gascon, Lacey or Rossi receive more than 50% of the votes on March 3, the two candidates with the most votes will have a runoff election in November.