‘People Evolve’: Why DA Gascón Reversed Decades of Parole Policy To Support Release In Most Cases
One of the many far-reaching reforms L.A. District Attorney George Gascón has implemented affects the little-known world of parole hearings.
In a reversal from previous DA's, Gascón has ordered his prosecutors to support parole in most cases. Historically, prosecutors have generally opposed parole. Gascón has also prohibited deputy DA’s from attending Board of Parole hearings.
He says for decades, prosecutors have too often argued to keep people locked up based on their original crime. Most of those seeking parole are known as lifers — murderers, rapists and other violent offenders serving an open-ended sentence.
“It’s almost making the assumption that the individual that has been in prison for decades is still the same person that he or she was when they were convicted,” Gascón said. “People evolve.”
Under the DA’s policy, prosecutors must now support parole for those rated as a low or moderate risk of re-offending. For those considered high-risk, prosecutors must be neutral. In no case may they oppose parole.
No other DA in the state has enacted such a blanket policy, according to the California District Attorneys Association.
Advocates of criminal justice reform have applauded the change, while it has set off alarm bells for many in law enforcement. L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who supports a recall effort against Gascón, said the DA is acting “at the behest of criminal offenders.”
‘People Will Be Harmed By Felons’
Other critics said the new approach will result in the release of dangerous individuals. “We are going to have an increase in crime, which means good people will be harmed by felons,” said Marc Debbaudt, who spent 35 years as an L.A. deputy DA before retiring last year.
Gascón and some experts point to data that shows parolees very rarely commit new violent crimes.
He argues parole boards have all the information they need to decide on their own whether to release someone, including police, psychological and prison behavior reports.
“We really need to stay out of the process,” he said, so it can be handled “by the people that have the best information about that person at that moment in time.”
“We are going to have an increase in crime, which means good people will be harmed by felons.”
Gascón is right about prosecutors too often opposing parole, said defense attorney Charles Carbone, who’s represented hundreds of people seeking release.
“I have sat in on way too many L.A. County cases where I’ve looked at the DA in amazement and said to myself, Do facts matter to you?” Carbone said, “because it’s unmistakable my client is ready to go home.”
The relentless push to keep people locked up for long periods of time has come at a staggering cost, Carbone told us, stating “We have lost three generations of mainly Black and Brown young men."
But Carbone opposes Gascón’s policy.
He argues it fails to take into account each person’s individual circumstances. He says the DA should instead train his prosecutors to better appreciate the value of rehabilitation as a way to soften their attitudes about parole.
Gascón’s move has highlighted some fundamental questions regarding the parole process: How do you determine when someone is safe to release? And what role should the original prosecutor play in making that determination?
‘He Has This Pattern Of Manipulative Behavior’
One day last fall inside Avenal State Prison south of Fresno, Jose Norrington peered into a camera for his virtual parole board hearing. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth.
Norrington was sentenced in 2008 to 25 years for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder. He helped kill a member of a rival street racing gang in El Sereno.
Because Norrington was 22 at the time he committed his crimes, he was eligible for early parole under the state’s Youthful Offender Program.
“I have sat in on way too many L.A. County cases where I’ve looked at the DA in amazement and said to myself, ‘Do facts matter to you? Because it’s unmistakable my client is ready to go home.’”
The two-person parole board peppered him with questions about his rehabilitation, remorse and his plans for housing if he got out. Norrington, 37, said he’s a changed man, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It got me to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for myself,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the sense of relief from that, when you start owning everything.”
Since the hearing took place before Gascón took office last December, L.A. Deputy DA Tracey Gastelum participated via Zoom. The veteran prosecutor was skeptical of Norrington’s story.
“He has this pattern of manipulative behavior,” Gastelum said. She pointed to the prison’s comprehensive risk assessment, which found Norrington “prided himself on being able to manipulate the probation officer.”
The assessment concluded there was a moderate risk that Norrington would commit a new crime within three years of his release.
Gastelum urged the board to turn Norrington down, but the board decided he was safe to release and granted him parole.
Norrington broke down and wept as he thanked the board.
Parole Boards Are ‘Very...Cautious’ In Considering Who To Release
Norrington’s parole hearing was one of more than 1,700 for people from L.A. County last year.
Under state law, there’s a presumption in favor of parole. But if there’s any evidence that a person poses an unreasonable risk of danger, the board will deny parole, said Heidi Rummel, who directs the USC Post-Conviction Justice Project.
Members of the parole board are hardly pushovers. Almost all are from law enforcement or the prison system, Rummel said. “They are very careful and cautious in their consideration of who they release,” she said.
The board grants parole to about one-third of those who appear before it, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). That amounted to about 1,200 people in 2019. More than one-third of them returned to L.A.
“It’s almost making the assumption that the individual that has been in prison for decades is still the same person that he or she was when they were convicted. People evolve.”
Most people in state prison never appear before a parole board. They’re serving a determinate sentence and are released after serving the entire time. These individuals typically committed less serious crimes, although CDCR statistics show they have a recidivism rate of about 65%.
Fewer than 1% of those released by the parole board commit a new violent crime, according to the CDCR.
“They have a proven track record of finding the people who can be safely released to the community,” Rummel said.
‘I Am Centered In The Space Of Redemption’
Gascón’s critics also argue that his policy will traumatize the families of violent crime victims.
On the steps of the Hall of Justice recently, a small group of people who had lost loved ones to violent crime gathered to criticize the DA’s parole and other policies.
Many were holding handmade “Recall Gascón” signs. Protestor Maria Barron said her 10-year-old nephew, Anthony, was murdered three years ago.
“He doesn’t care,” Barron said of Gascón. For her, there is no redemption for the murderer of a child. The idea that Anthony’s accused killers might go free one day is “not fair,” said the boy’s uncle, David Barron.
Fewer than 1% of those released by the parole board commit a new violent crime, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Crime victims' families, however, are far from unanimous on questions of punishment and rehabilitation.
Last month, a poll suggested many family members of victims in L.A. County do not favor long prison terms.
The poll found 60% support shorter sentences and spending more money on prevention and rehabilitation. It was paid for by Californians for Safety and Justice, a group that lobbies for reducing incarceration.
Najuma Smith-Pollard, whose 24-year-old son was murdered three years ago, counts herself among those who favor forgiveness over punishment.
“People have the right to be mad, so I’m not taking that away from anyone who’s mad and angry,” said Smith-Pollard, the pastor of Word of Encouragement Community Church in South L.A. “From my vantage point, I am centered in the space of redemption.”
She plans to attend the parole hearings for her son’s killer, who’s serving an eight years-to-life sentence in Nevada. But she doesn’t expect to argue to keep him in prison for decades.
“Fifty years doesn’t change my reality,” Smith-Pollard said. “My anger doesn’t go away with time. My anger goes away because I do whatever healing work I need to do.”
She says her healing will come in part from seeing the person who murdered her son turn his life around. “Seeing another Black man go to prison ... does not bring me joy,” Smith-Pollard said.
‘It’s Hard Being Angry All The Time’
When it comes to parole, Charles LaFayette may be an example of Gascón’s vision. He was sentenced to 25 years to life for a murder in South L.A. during a drug deal gone bad. He was 17 at the time.
LaFayette recalls he was hardly a model of good behavior during his first dozen years behind bars. “I sold drugs in prison. I was involved in assaults. I was a gang member,” he told LAist.
Over time, LaFayette began to change. He left the gang. He started attending classes on substance abuse, the criminal mind, and anger management.
“It’s hard being angry all the time,” he said. “It’s very mentally draining, emotionally draining, very stressful to be angry all the time.”
Then Moose came along. Moose was the first dog LaFayette trained as part of a special prison program. “I loved to work with the dogs,” he said. “It got me back in touch with humanity and my emotions.”
LaFayette had his first parole hearing in 2017. The board denied him. At his second hearing last year, the board granted him parole, overriding the opposition of the L.A. prosecutor who participated.
LaFayette left prison after 27 years behind bars. Now 45, he continues to train dogs. He has a job at a halfway house. And he married his high school sweetheart — they’d kept in touch over the years.
An earlier version of this story had the wrong age for Najuma Smith-Pollard's son when he was killed, and failed to note that the men accused of killing Maria and David Barron's nephew have not been convicted. We regret the errors.