'Highly Unusual For A DA': Gascón Touts His Push To Cut Prison Sentences

DA George Gascón. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón said Wednesday that policies enacted during his first three months in office will result in convicted defendants spending thousands of fewer years in prison, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gascón's remarks came during a news conference making his first 100 days in office.

One of Gascón's signature policies is to dramatically reduce the use of sentencing enhancements, and that accounts for the reduced time. The penal code has more than 100 such enhancements, many of them dating back to when California was facing soaring crime in the 1980s and '90s. They include extra prison time for using a gun, for example.

The DA's office filed 5,138 enhancements during Gascón's first three months. Compared with the Dec. 2019-Feb. 2020 period under former DA Jackie Lacey, that's a massive 71% drop.

In one example, under Lacey, prosecutors filed 715 gun enhancements from in that period under the state's "10-20-Life" law, which adds 10 years to a sentence if you use a gun during the commission of a robbery or some other crime. The law adds 20 years if you discharge the gun and 25 years-to-life in prison if you wound someone.

In Gascón's first three months, his prosecutors filed 106 such gun enhancements, including just two in February.

Other examples:

  • The filing of gang enhancements fell from 955 under Lacey to 132 under Gascón, with none filed last month.
  • Lacey filed 2,221 "strike" enhancements under the state's three strikes law from Dec. 2019 to Feb. 2020. Since he took office on Dec. 7, Gascón has filed 380.
  • Under Lacey, prosecutors filed 640 great bodily injury enhancements. Under Gascón, they filed 201.

AT LEAST 8,172 FEWER YEARS BEHIND BARS

Gascón projected that criminal defendants charged in his first three months in office could spend at least 8,172 fewer years behind bars as a result of these changes. He said the number could be much higher because the office figured the lowest possible prison sentences if the enhancements were filed.

Gascón is part of a growing number of prosecutors who argue the justice system has locked up too many people for too long with no real public safety benefit. "There generally is no correlation between the length of a sentence and the likelihood that someone will not commit crimes," he said.

During last year's campaign, Gascón promised to address mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system. Sentencing enhancements may be his biggest effort to do that.

But the union that represents his own prosecutors sued to stop his enhancements policy, arguing it was too broad. A judge said Gascón could not force prosecutors to withdraw previously filed enhancements as part of a blanket policy, but he is allowed to have a policy that reduces their use going forward.

The dramatic drop in prison time for criminals will result in "incalculable losses in public safety," said Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association for Deputy District Attorneys. He argued that sentencing enhancements provide a strong deterrent to crime.

Siddall called Gascón's approach to enhancements a "reckless experiment."

PROJECTED COST SAVINGS ARE 'PURE FICTION'

"These numbers are highly unusual for a DA's office," said Loyola Law School Professor Stan Goldman, referring to a prosecutor proudly displaying policies designed to lower prison sentences. "The question is how it's going to work out. Is violent crime going to go up when people get out of prisons?"

If those defendants are convicted, their shorter sentences will save the state prisons $664 million, according to Gascón. He based that estimate on the average yearly cost to imprison someone in California, which is just over $81,000.

"Those savings can now go to education, mental health and housing," Gascón said. "And obviously those savings will only increase with time."

"That's pure fiction," said Siddal, arguing there would be no savings because the cost of running a prison essentially remains the same, regardless of the size of its population.

Gascón touted other accomplishments during his first 100 days, including:

  • No longer seeking the death penalty in 17 active cases
  • Withdrawing 77 pending motions to transfer minors to adult court
  • Hiring former federal prosecutor Lawrence Middleton to serve as a special prosecutor to review past police shootings

The DA acknowledged ongoing dissent among his prosecutors, saying some of the enhancements still being filed are done against office policy. "This is a major cultural shift," Gascón said.

"Our efforts to transform a dated approach that creates more crime, victims and inequities are just beginning," he said.