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Criminal Justice

LA DA Gascón Reverses Course, Now Open To Charging Some Juveniles As Adults

LA DA George Gascón's head, with white hair and glasses, is seen in close up, gazing at something in the distance.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said Wednesday he will consider prosecuting juveniles accused of crimes involving “severe violence” in adult court, a reversal of a policy that has drawn intense criticism and fueled efforts to recall him from office.

On his first day in office, Gascón announced no juvenile would be tried in adult court, no matter how heinous the crime. But in an interview Wednesday he told us, “We now have a year under our belt. We have seen the things that are not necessarily working as well as I would prefer.”

Going forward, Gascón said decisions on juvenile cases will be made on “a case-by-case basis” and “at the highest levels” of his office.

Under state law, a prosecutor must seek a judge's approval to try a juvenile as an adult. The judge considers a variety of factors, including the gravity of the alleged offense, the degree of "criminal sophistication" exhibited, and whether the minor can be rehabilitated before juvenile court jurisdiction ends at age 25.

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The DA said he may now also ask judges to uphold prison sentences previously handed down to juveniles in adult court — something he previously prohibited.

In one high-profile case last year, a man who committed murder when he was 17 was released after serving just five years of a 50-years-to-life sentence because Gascón refused to argue he should remain in prison longer.

Gascon also was criticized for declining to seek to place Hannah Tubbs in an adult prison. She sexually assaulted a child when she was 17. A judge sentenced Tubbs, now 26, to two years in a youth facility.

“This is not an acknowledgement that we made a mistake in the Tubbs case,” Gascon said of his shift in policy. “I think the Tubbs case still does not belong in adult court.”

Prosecutors in the DA's office have not received a new written directive on juvenile policies, according to Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.

“We welcome the change, assuming it's truly a change,” he said. The ADDA has been strongly opposed to Gascón’s policies and has planned a vote on whether to support efforts to recall him from office.

Siddall said he believed any policy change was a response by the DA to polls showing people increasingly worried about crime, and bad publicity about the Tubbs case.

‘I Think This Change … Is Long Overdue’

“I think this change in course is long overdue,” said attorney Kathy Cady, a former deputy district attorney who has been sharply critical of Gascón’s juvenile policy. She said she currently represents the family of two sisters whose alleged murderer was one month short of his 18th birthday. Cady has asked Gascón to petition a judge to transfer the case to adult court.

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Cady said she has sent an email to Gascón “begging him to reconsider.” She has not yet heard back.

“I think that it was very ill-advised to come out with a blanket policy that pretends everyone is equal,” she said.

I think it was very ill-advised to come out with a blanket policy that pretends everyone is equal.
— Kathy Cady, attorney and former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles

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.”

Gascón said he still thinks juveniles do not belong in adult court but argued that he “has no choice” but to change his policy, citing two reasons.

He first pointed to what he said was the county’s failure to create an adequate alternative to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, a lockup for people who committed serious crimes when they were juveniles. The state is in the process of shutting down DJJ; its rehabilitation programs were considered strong, but some advocates wanted juveniles in local lock-ups, closer to families.

“My hope is this will be a wake-up call to the county,”Gascón said.

Second, the DA said he expects to be handling more cases of juveniles sentenced in adult court as the result of an expected state Supreme Court ruling later this year.

“I want to make sure that the work that we do is consistent with what the science and data says as well as consistent with the immediate needs for safety,” Gascón said.

I hope Gascón is applying this consideration to the rarest, exceptional cases.
— L.A. attorney and youth justice advocate Patricia Soung

The policy reversal may not sit well with advocates of criminal justice reform, some of whom supported him in large part because he said he would end the practice of charging juveniles as adults.

“I hope Gascón is applying this consideration to the rarest, exceptional cases,” said Patricia Soung, an L.A. attorney and youth justice advocate.

Soung sits on the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council subcommittee that is working on a plan to build a facility for juveniles who have committed serious and violent crimes. Nimbyism is a huge problem, she said.

“The county is at a stalemate on where to place a secure youth treatment facility,” Soung said. “Each recommendation we make is met with intense local resident opposition.”

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