LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles has the biggest jail system in America and sends people to state prison at almost four times the rate of San Francisco, even though violent crime has fallen in both cities. And there has not been a death penalty case in San Francisco in decades, while prosecutors in Los Angeles are still seeking new capital cases after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions.
San Francisco and Los Angeles may share a similar brand of liberal politics. They are both led by mayors who see it as their jobs, in part, to push back against President Trump’s agenda, and both cities are trying to bring liberal solutions to bear on some of the same problems, like homelessness and housing.
But when it comes to criminal justice, the two cities could not be more different.
“They are polar opposites,” said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Now, those competing approaches — pushing to reform mass incarceration versus a more traditional get-tough-on crime tact — are likely to clash in the race for district attorney of Los Angeles. George Gascón, the district attorney of San Francisco, is weighing a return home to Los Angeles, where he was a police officer in the 1990s, to challenge Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles’s incumbent top prosecutor, setting the stage for what activists and experts say will be the most important district attorney’s race in America.
Mr. Gascón declined to comment, but an associate with knowledge of his plans said that while he has not made a final decision about running, he is likely to enter the race. He has been visiting local activist groups in Los Angeles, including Black Lives Matter. In meetings, he has touted his record in San Francisco of reducing jail and prison populations and tackling bias by keeping demographic information about suspects from prosecutors as they decide whether to bring charges.
Activists in Los Angeles, as well as national figures who have backed, with campaign cash and grass-roots support, liberal district attorney candidates across the country in recent years, are pushing Mr. Gascón to run.
“This race is a huge opportunity,” said Anne Irwin, a lawyer and director of Smart Justice California, an advocacy group. “Los Angeles has the biggest prosecutors office, and affects more lives, than any other prosecutors office in the country. Electing a reform-minded prosecutor there will change the criminal justice landscape nationally,” she said.
Groups that have successfully supported reform-minded prosecutors pushing to end mass incarceration in places like Philadelphia, Chicago and Texas have zeroed in on Los Angeles as the ultimate prize for their movement because of its size — it has the biggest jail system and the largest prosecutors office in the country. At the same time, politicians on the national level have begun to reverse the nation’s incarceration boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and last year, President Trump signed the First Step Act, which reduced some federal sentences.
Ms. Cullors, who is also the director of the Real Justice political action committee and this year published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times with the headline, “Criminal justice reform is sweeping the country. But not L.A. County,” called the upcoming election “the single most important D.A. race in the country.”
Ms. Cullors said that Mr. Gascón has, in their meetings, “been very clear that he wants to end mass incarceration in Los Angeles. He’s been very clear that he wants to hold law enforcement accountable. He has been very clear that he does not want to lock up people with mental illness.”
As Mr. Gascón canvasses community activists in Los Angeles, Ms. Lacey has been racking up endorsements for her re-election campaign from the city and region’s political establishment, including eight congressional representatives, several state officials, four of the five members of the county board of supervisors, and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Mr. Garcetti, in a statement, said, “She’s smart, tremendously effective and cleareyed. And she always puts the mission of advancing justice for all above everything else.”
When Ms. Lacey was elected district attorney in 2012, she became the first woman and first African-American to hold the office, and she was embraced by liberal activists as someone they hoped would take a new approach to criminal justice. But in office, she has spoken out against statewide reforms of recent years aimed at reducing prison populations, and put herself forward as an aggressive enforcer of the law, an approach that won her two elections.
She has lately touted a new mental health diversion program, aimed at steering people away from jail and into housing and treatment, which has won praise from city leaders who hope it will help end the revolving door between the city’s jail and Skid Row. But she has angered many liberal activists with her reluctance to prosecute police officers for shootings.
She has also pushed back on a new state law that changed California’s felony murder rule, which allowed for early release of inmates who had been convicted of murder while involved in a felony even though they weren’t the actual killer.
And this week, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report of Ms. Lacey’s handling of the death penalty, calling it “shameful” and riddled with racial bias. The report found that all of the 22 people sentenced to death in her tenure were people of color. And while Governor Newsom in March announced a moratorium on executions, Ms. Lacey has said she remains supportive of capital punishment, noting that it is still the law in the state and that voters have backed the penalty. Her office continues to pursue new death cases.
In a written response to questions, Ms. Lacey said, “My values are a reflection of my experience growing up in the Crenshaw District. Growing up, we witnessed gang violence, poverty and difficult relations between the police and community. From the Watts riots, to overcrowded prisons, to seeing people I knew going to jail and becoming victims of crimes, I don’t come from the privileged background of a typical county D.A.”
Ms. Lacey was unapologetic about being tough on crime, writing that her goal is to create an environment “where children in disadvantaged communities have the opportunity to thrive and not live in fear.”
She continued, referring to her position on the death penalty, “My job as district attorney is to enforce the law, not make the law.” On the issue of not prosecuting officers involved in shootings, which has drawn the most criticism from activists, she said, “A district attorney should not be prosecuting based on politics,” adding, “Whether the case involves a police officer or anybody else, my job is to enforce the law as it is written.”
According to data from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, using statistics from 2017, Los Angeles sent 608 people per 100,000 to state prison, much higher than San Francisco’s rate of 126 per 100,000 and higher than the state rate of 487. San Francisco has seen a sharper drop than many places in its incarceration rate, which declined by nearly 57 percent between 2009 and 2017, using data from the center and the Vera Institute of Justice. That compares to a 28 percent decline for Los Angeles, which accounts for roughly a third of the state’s total prison population of almost 130,00 inmates.
These days, each Wednesday, Black Lives Matter activists hold rallies outside Ms. Lacey’s office at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, to protest her tenure in office and demand her removal. But how much success they will have remains to be seen.
“There’s just a really stark contrast,” said Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, referring to San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I guess the huge unanswered question is, are L.A. voters ready for someone who’s more progressive?”