When he was studying public administration at USC, Richard Ceballos landed an internship at the child abuse and sex crimes unit of the district attorney’s office.
Ceballos worked at the DA’s office during the McMartin preschool trial in the 1980s, when the owners of a family-run day care in Manhattan Beach were charged with 321 counts of child abuse against 41 children. During his internship, he would listen in on the discussions between prosecutors in the office on how to handle the investigation. Finding the best ways to help the children intrigued Ceballos.
He knew from that point forward that he wanted to go to law school and become a prosecutor.
“You want to give victims a voice because victims don’t choose to become victims,” he said. “And when they do become victims, often times, they feel they don’t have a voice, so prosecutors become a voice in court and try to seek justice for what happened to them.”
After graduating from USC in 1985, Ceballos obtained his law degree at Loyola Marymount University and began his career as a prosecutor.
Now, Ceballos serves as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles and has worked in the L.A. District Attorney’s office for almost 30 years. But he sees a need for more change in how the city handles crime. In March, he announced that he would run against his current boss Dist. Att. Jackie Lacey in the 2020 race.
Lacey has served in her position since December 2012, and Ceballos said his boss is too traditional in her persecution of city crimes. Ceballos centered his campaign on a “smart on crime” mentality focused on helping people through criminal justice reform rather than making it a goal to fill prisons with more and more people.
He said he hopes to eliminate the cash bail system and create more accountability and transparency within the criminal justice reform system, among other changes.
Ceballos wants prosecutors to work with community members who have committed crimes and help them receive the resources they need to improve. Otherwise, he said, when they’re released from prison, they’ll just return to committing the same crimes and repeating the cycle.
“You have some people that, frankly, they love being a prosecutor because they love throwing people in jail and prison — that has to change,” he said. “It has to be your job as prosecutors not to send people to jail or prison [but] to do justice.”
Ceballos said he’s tried to raise his concerns with Lacey multiple times but has never been successful.
In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Lacey wrote about her efforts to establish a Mental Health Division to help criminals with mental health issues be directed to services rather than through the legal system. Lacey also pointed to her efforts to support a ban on private prisons, work to reform the cash bail system and erase hundreds of thousands of minor court citations, like sleeping on public property, to help people living in homelessness find housing and services, among other efforts.
“Throughout my tenure as L.A. County’s District Attorney, I’ve been committed to the two goals of protecting our community and promoting smart, innovative policies to reform our criminal justice system and ensure fairness and justice for all,” she wrote. “I take both of these responsibilities very seriously.”
Besides Lacey, Ceballos will also compete against George Gascon, a former San Francisco district attorney who recently resigned and moved to L.A. He also served as a San Francisco police chief and L.A. police officer. But Ceballos believes his 30 years of experience in the L.A. office will help him create lasting change.
Luis Rodriguez, who has known and worked with Ceballos for nearly 20 years, said he has always had positive interactions with Ceballos, both personally and professionally.
“I’ve always found him to be a very open minded and respectful individual and someone who … is an ethical individual who, if it’s a criminal case that he’s on, he’s not the kind of person who I would worry about his veracity or his ethical stance,” Rodriguez said.
Ceballos returned to USC in 2017 to teach a class on ethics at the Gould School of Law and also previously taught ethics and advanced criminal procedures at the UC Irvine School of Law since 2010.
Eunsuk Yang, a third-year Gould student, took Ceballos’ class in Spring 2018 and interned under him at the district attorney’s office the following school year. Yang enjoyed the class because he said Ceballos also brought in people from different aspects of law like criminal defense or public interest attorneys as guest speakers to provide new perspectives.
“He kept emphasizing that at the end of the day, your reputation carries over wherever you go with you, and that’s based on ethics … and that should be your moral compass,” he said.
Ceballos also used his experiences working as a prosecutor to teach his students. One lesson that stood out to Yang revolved around a 2006 Supreme Court case Ceballos had fought against his boss, then-Dist. Att. Gil Garcetti.
Ceballos notified his office after finding facts in a search warrant affidavit were misrepresented or false. While attorneys prosecuting the case agreed with Ceballos that some of the information was false, the D.A.’s office refused to dismiss the case, and Ceballos was subpoenaed to testify for the defense.
He said some workers in his office retaliated against him for helping the defense and he sued, arguing that the First Amendment protected him. Ceballos ultimately lost in a 5-4 decision at the high court. Still, Ceballos said he uses the case to teach students to look harder at the evidence and cases they are assigned to and to question the information they’re reading for inaccuracies.
“Just because it’s in writing doesn’t mean it’s truthful, doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” he said. “As lawyers, you have to dig beyond that, and when you find something that’s misrepresented in the warrant, then your duty [is] to investigate that and question them.”