Mario Trujillo is daring. Though seeking the top law enforcement position as Los Angeles County District Attorney, Trujillo dares to defy the conventional wisdom that a DA must be a hard-hearted prosecutor who locks up criminals and throws away the key. Instead, he advocates passionately for something liberals haven’t even whispered about for years—the prospect of rehabilitating criminals who invariably return to the community.
Besides, Trujillo says, it’s an economic necessity.
Trujillo has been an openly gay prosecutor for 15 years and is currently the deputy in charge of the district attorney’s Bellflower office, managing day-to-day operations. He’s handled more than 115 jury trials—85 felonies, 30 misdemeanors and 22 murder cases—with a 95 percent conviction rate. He has prosecuted gang murders with the Hardcore Gang Division and was a felony prosecutor in the Victim Impact Program dealing with tough domestic violence and child physical and sexual abuse cases. He promises to work with at-risk youth and to be “proactive in averting hate crimes and relentless in pursuing those who commit them”—something seemingly missing from the DA’s office in recent years.
Trujillo attributes his passion for legal and social justice to the influence of his mother. As a girl, his mother was pulled out of school in the third grade in Mexico, and as a single mother turned that into a motivator for her children. “She constantly reminded us that America is the land of opportunity where we were able to get an education,” Trujillo said in a phone interview Sept. 15. “Because she was a strong community advocate and she was able to figure out that lawyers have a crucial role in advocacy, she encouraged me to become a lawyer. I’m a lawyer today because of my mother and the lessons that she taught me.”
Trujillo’s own family is the center of his world. He lives in Downey with his partner Leonard and their two teenage children.
“My top priority is always protecting the public and providing effective service to the public—in particular, our victims,” Trujillo says. “Because of the current economic situation, my priority demands that I effectively use tax-payer money that comes to our office.”
That means that while violent offenders must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, he would not continue the status quo in treating lesser offenders.
“We can no longer afford to support this revolving door of justice for these low-level misdemeanors where people are supposed to go to county jail, and in some cases, prison,” Trujillo said, noting how Assembly Bill 109 shifted the burden of responsibility for low-level prisoners from the state to the county, forcing the release of 46,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding. “The majority of them came back into our county in one of the worst economic times. We have to figure out a way to use the now-limited resources to continue to protect the public. And that is why I believe we must process low-level misdemeanors and some low-level felons differently.”
Trujillo wants to make obtaining an education or participating in an out-of-custody trade training one of the options for sentencing low-level offenders. The DA’s office would direct them to local adult schools in their community where there is an existing funding structure already in place. He would create programs to work collaboratively with multiple nonprofits that provide training in trades, GED education and computer skills.
“There are many nonprofits that are already providing great programs that we will have low-level offenders participate in so we can achieve true rehabilitation,” he said. “My top priority is public safety while helping those coming into the system obtain true rehabilitation so they don’t come back.”
Asked what he would have done had he been the DA in Ventura County faced with prosecuting then-14-year-old Brandon McInerney for killing his 15-year-old gay classmate Larry King in their Oxnard classroom, Trujillo said he would have charged and tried McInerney as an adult as did the Ventura DA—but he would have offered rehabilitation, knowing that, if convicted, McInerney would eventually be eligible for parole.
Noting the uproar in the Ventura County and even the LGBT community over trying McInerney as an adult—a decision that apparently led to a mistrial earlier this month—Trujillo said he “disagreed” with the community.
“Even at 14, you do not pick up a gun, you do not pack it in your backpack and go to school the next day and shoot and kill someone in the back of the head. You do not do that. So I would have most likely tried him as an adult,” Trujillo said. “Now, had he been convicted—what would the appropriate consequences be? Should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life? I don’t know. That’s where we take in all the other social factors that this young man has had to deal with throughout his very short life. That’s where we take into account his upbringing and how we can work with him to try to rehabilitate him so that someday, perhaps, he should be free amongst us again.
“That’s why rehabilitation is so important for everyone—including those convicted of first-degree murder,” he said. “We have forgotten what the system is supposed to be about, and that’s rehabilitation. And one of my goals as the next DA of L.A. County is restorative justice. We need to restore justice.”
For more on Mario Trujillo’s campaign, go to mariotrujilloforda.com.