LA's New DA George Gascón Ushers In Sweeping Changes, Less Punitive Approach to Crime

New L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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George Gascón took the oath of office Monday as Los Angeles County's 43rd district attorney, announcing a dizzying array of policy changes that include vows to lock up fewer people, end cash bail and seek the early release of thousands of state prison inmates whom he said are unfairly serving overly long sentences.

The new DA also made good on his campaign promises to stop seeking the death penalty, stop charging juveniles as adults, and to review hundreds of police shootings.

Gascón takes office at a difficult time. He faces stiff opposition to many of his policies from his prosecutors and the police officers with whom he must work. He also faces a rising crime rate across L.A. County.

In his inauguration speech, Gascón said his time as a hard-charging LAPD cop in the 1980s and '90s helped shape his transformation into an advocate for wide-ranging criminal justice reforms.

"Those days continue to haunt me," said Gascón, who asserted that he and his partners arrested multiple generations of poor young Black and Latino men and sent them off to prison when rehabilitation was a better answer. He said that approach destroyed many lives, including those of the arrestees' families.

"It is time to change course and implement a system of justice that will enhance our safety and humanity," said Gascón. "Today we are confronting the lie that stripping entire communities of their liberties somehow made us safer — and we're doing it with science, research, and data."

Gascon is the latest and highest profile reform DA elected in the U.S., thanks in part to more than $6 million in campaign support from wealthy liberal backers, including George Soros.

NO MORE GANG ENHANCEMENTS

In perhaps his boldest policy initiative, Gascón said he will end the use of so-called sentencing enhancements. For example, committing a crime while being listed in the state's gang database or while using a gun can add years to how long someone spends behind bars. The policy would also apply to the state's Three Strikes law, which has been used to send people to prison for 25 years to life.

Significantly, Gascón will make the policy retroactive, which means more than 20,000 state prison inmates will be eligible for consideration for early release. That's about one-fifth of the state's prison population. Of those, 50% are rated a low-risk of committing a new crime if released, according to Gascón.

People who commit violent offenses and those deemed a risk to the community will not be eligible for resentencing. Here's who will be eligible:

  • People who committed nonviolent crimes
  • People who are at low risk of re-offending
  • People with demonstrated records of rehabilitation behind bars
  • Older prison inmates
  • Prisoners at risk for COVID-19
  • People who were sentenced to adult terms as children

Gascon's team sought to allay any fears about new policies aimed at reducing prison sentences.

"We don't want to alarm people," said Hillary Blout, executive director of the Oakland-based Sentence Review Project and a member of Gascon's transition team."We want them to know that this is going to be carried out in a very careful and methodical way."

Ultimately, a judge will decide who gets resentenced.

The end of sentencing enhancements and release of potentially thousands of prison inmates could save the state "billions of dollars," said Gascón.

A VOW TO 'END MONEY BAIL...IN ITS ENTIRETY'

In another big initiative, Gascón will no longer seek bail for anyone facing a misdemeanor charge or non-violent or non-serious felony. For defendants facing more serious or violent charges, Gascón has instructed prosecutors to ask judges to impose detention without bail.

The new policy likely will result in the release of hundreds of people from L.A. County jails and a dramatically reduced jail population.

Calling that move "just a first step," the D.A. said that by Jan. 1, "my office will roll out a plan to end money bail in L.A. in its entirety."

Last month, California voters decided to keep cash bail by rejecting Proposition 25, but Gascón suggested they merely didn't like the solution presented to them — some liberal groups opposed the measure because it would have created a computerized risk assessment tool that they believed would perpetuate racial disparities.

Arguing that "turning public health problems into criminal problems does not serve the public interest," the D.A. said he will "stop filing first-time misdemeanor offenses associated with poverty and mental health" — so-called "quality of life" crimes such as loitering or public intoxication. He said he'll work with police to expand social services offered at the point of contact.

ENDING USE OF THE 'RACIST' DEATH PENALTY

Gascón said he will no longer seek the death penalty, calling it "racist" and "morally untenable," adding that he is committed to resentencing L.A. County prisoners on death row to life in prison.

Citing research that found locking up juveniles harms their health and increases the chances they'll commit future crimes, Gascón said he will stop charging juveniles as adults.

In yet another highly unusual move for a prosecutor, Gascón took aim at the police and prison guard unions that have been a driving force behind decades of tough-on-crime policies.

"For decades those who profit off incarceration have used their enormous political influence — cloaked in the false veil of safety — to scare the public and our elected officials into backing racist policies that created more victims, destroyed budgets, and shattered our moral compass," Gascón said. "That lie and the harm it caused ends now."

It's hard to overstate how radically different Gascón is from past DA's. None, regardless of their political party, offered such a critique.

It's a critique aimed in part at the roughly 1,000 current prosecutors in the DA's office, many of whom have spent their careers seeking the long prison terms Gascón intends to roll back. Their union strongly opposed Gascón in the election, backing ousted incumbent DA Jackie Lacey.

TROUBLE IN THE DA'S OFFICE...AND WITH THE POLICE

Gascón met with his staff Monday, and afterward some prosecutors were upset. "All hell has seriously broken out," read one text exchange among three deputy DA's. The attorneys requested anonymity, fearing retribution from the Gascón administration.

"He is not interested in public safety but in the defendant's best interest!!" read another text. "He is NOT WELCOMED."

Yet another text read: "Our new DA has turned this office into a Public Defender's office. This office is in an uproar." One prosecutor wrote, "I am definitely retiring in 1 ½ years."

In another initiative sure to frustrate police unions, Gascón said a newly created Use of Force Review Board will review more than 600 officer-involved shootings going back to 2012 to see if they were justified. It's an unprecedented move designed to address the growing outrage over police shootings in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

Use of force experts, civil rights attorneys and members of the community will sit on the board, which will conduct the review with help from the U.C. Irvine Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Clinics.

The DA has already said he will reopen four shooting cases to review whether criminal charges should be filed against the officers involved.

In opposing Gascón during the campaign, the unions representing police and sheriff's deputies warned that his policies would increase crime. In an open letter addressed to L.A. County's law enforcement community, he argued his initiatives will allow police to focus on more serious criminals rather than those suffering from mental health and addiction issues — and build trust with communities.

"For decades now police have increasingly been tasked with dealing with both the dangerous and the nuisance," he wrote. "It has severely complicated our profession and crippled our effectiveness in the eyes of the public. The status quo is simply unsustainable for our profession and the communities we serve."

After making the case for his reform initiatives, Gascón wrote, "We need to reimagine the way we've done business for the last half-century, and I need you at the table."

The appeal did not find a receptive audience at the L.A. Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.

Citing the recent rise in homicides and shootings, the union's board of directors said in a statement that "it's disturbing that Gascón's first act in office is to explore every avenue possible to release from jail those responsible for this bloodshed." It said the city's law-abiding Black and Latino residents, who make up the majority of violent crime victims, "lost a voice today while criminals and gang members gained an ally in the prosecutor's office."

When Gascón was DA in San Francisco, police officers frustrated with his policies were accused of arresting fewer people — assuming they would never get prosecuted.

Gascón warned against L.A. police making decisions "based on perceived downstream consequences."

"I will take full responsibility for the outcomes delivered by my office," he said.

Gascón announced two other initiatives Monday:

  • Wrongful Convictions: He will increase the size of the DA's Conviction Review Unit that examines claims of wrongful conviction.
  • Victims: He will no longer demand that victims of crimes testify before they can receive assistance, which ranges from help with medical expenses to relocation. In addition, he will begin offering victim assistance to the families of people shot by police.

The new DA ended his speech with an invitation.

"Whether you are a protestor, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me," Gascón said. "I ask you to join me on this journey."

READ THE FULL SPEECH: