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Criminal Justice

LA DA Gascón Ends Ban On Seeking Life Without Parole For Some Defendants

LA DA George Gascón
L.A. DA George Gascón.
( Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images)
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In his second significant policy reversal this week, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said Friday he would consider seeking life without the possibility of parole for some criminal defendants.

On his first day in office a little more than a year ago, Gascón said he would never seek a special circumstance allegation that could lead to a sentence of life without parole.

He had argued everyone deserves a chance at parole, no matter the crime, and said life without parole sentences contribute to mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Here's what Gascón said in a special directive to deputy district attorneys:

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However, after listening to the community, victims, and colleagues, I understand there may be the rare occasion where the filing of special circumstance allegations may be necessary.

Accordingly, I will enact a committee to review the appropriateness of filing such enhancements in an extremely limited number of cases where the underlying facts are extraordinary and/or the victims are uniquely vulnerable.

After listening to the community, victims, and colleagues, I understand there may be the rare occasion where the filing of special circumstance allegations may be necessary.
— Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón

Prosecutors may file a special circumstance allegation in cases involving the murder of a police officer, multiple murders, torture, or murder for financial gain, among others. The sentence for a conviction is either life without parole or the death penalty.

Gascón said he remains committed to “never seeking the death penalty.”

The Reaction

The change in policy comes amid an effort to recall the DA from office and polls that show voters increasingly concerned about crime. His opponents have attempted to portray him as soft on crime.

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The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs has endorsed the recall and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which represents Gascón’s rank-and-file prosecutors, plans a vote on whether to follow suit. Both organizations endorsed his opponent in the 2020 election.

In changing some of his policies, Gascón may also be considering what’s happening in San Francisco. Voters there recalled three school board members this week and will soon vote on whether to recall DA Chesa Boudin.

The Shift On Juveniles

The other big policy change came this week when Gascón said he would consider prosecuting juveniles as adults — something he previously prohibited. He issued a directive Friday detailing how that would work.

In one of his first acts as DA, Gascón ordered his prosecutors to keep all minors in the juvenile court system — no matter the crime — and use the “’lightest touch’ necessary in order to provide public safety” when recommending a sentence. He pointed to research that shows that youth “are malleable and continue to mature until their early-to mid-20s.”

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Now, he will consider prosecuting juveniles as adults in “exceptional circumstances.”

In his directive, Gascón announced the creation of a Youth Justice Committee that will review murders committed by juveniles that would traditionally qualify for special circumstances, aggravated violent sexual assaults, and cases involving “exceptionally serious or anomalous conduct.”

“The District Attorney is firmly committed to his principles,” Alex Bastian, a special advisor to Gascón, said in a statement. “One of these underlying principles is to constantly refine what we are doing so that we can continue to enhance public safety in a thoughtful manner.”

Gascón has made sweeping changes since taking office in Dec. 2020 aimed at reducing mass incarceration and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

What questions do you have about criminal justice and public safety in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.

Corrected February 19, 2022 at 7:17 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Alex Bastian as a spokesperson. LAist regrets the error.