Candidates for the office of Los Angeles District Attorney pledged to rely on science in prosecutions at a UCLA event Wednesday.
The candidate Q&A at Geffen Hall was hosted by the Science Policy Group at UCLA, a student group that advocates for social issues related to science, health, technology and the environment.
Two candidates – Rachel Rossi and George Gascón – are challenging the incumbent DA Jackie Lacey, for the office in the primary on March 3. If none of the three wins an outright majority, they will enter a runoff in the November general election.
Rossi, a candidate running for LA District Attorney, said she believes science and data could be used proactively by the District Attorney’s office to battle issues such as mass incarceration and criminal injustice.
“A lot of what has driven mass incarceration in this country has been the lack of data, the lack of information, the lack of relying on the facts and on science and instead relying on fear-mongering,” Rossi said.
Rossi, who is a former LA County public defender, said the District Attorney’s office could be very influential in reforming criminal justice policies nationwide. These include reforms on the use of rehabilitation treatment centers, introducing expert testimonies in sexual abuse trials and battling environmental injustice in minority neighborhoods, she said.
Gascón, who served as the San Francisco District Attorney from 2011 to 2019, is also running for DA Gascón said he has spent time working with LAPD and the District Attorney office to integrate data and science into their daily work.
Both candidates talked about leveraging data and science to make the current criminal justice system compatible with modern scientific standards. Science can be used to understand the impacts of the criminal justice system, Gascón added.
For example, Gascón said inmates who qualify for diversion programs, which rehabilitate criminals through addressing the cause of their offense, should be treated at mental health institutions appropriate for their situations.
“Would you take somebody who has cancer, put them in jail because you don’t have a place to get cancer treatment?” Gascón asked. “Obviously the answer is no. So why would we take a mentally ill person and put him in a concrete box?”
Rossi also said she thinks incarceration is not the right tool for authorities to deal with substance abuse. Instead, treatment and diversion programs and a more adaptive prosecutorial procedure would be more effective compared to incarceration, she added.
Lewis Peterson, a Westwood homeowner who attended the event, said he thinks a shift from being tough on crimes to a science-based approach is necessary for improving policies.
“I think, overall, the criminal justice reform and shifting attitudes from locking (people) up to helping people figure out what’s wrong in solving problems is essentially what science can help us do and this resonates with me,” he said.
Peterson added that although the event was incredible, it was disappointing that not all the candidates could make it.
Zoe Guttman, the president of the Science Policy Group at UCLA and a neuroscience graduate student, said the group was started in 2016 by four women, including herself, and currently has about 200 members.
“The idea of creating this event came from one of our members, Yuki (Hebner), who attended a debate a couple months ago of a DA candidate and brought it to the group as a potential topic,” Guttman said.
She added that people really don’t think about how important the role of the DA is in the sciences, in terms of using science to implement policy.
“This election in LA right now is a huge deal and has been getting so much press attention, so a very momentous shift can happen,” Guttman said. “There are lots of things that can change, and it is important to realize that most of those things are informed by science.”