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Why So Many Of DA Gascón’s Prosecutors Want Him Recalled

A close-up of District Attorney George Gascón
L.A. District Attorney George Gascón.
(Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office is in turmoil.

Prosecutors opposed to DA George Gascón’s reform agenda and unhappy with his management practices overwhelmingly support his removal — just 16 months after he assumed office.

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Why So Many Of DA Gascón’s Prosecutors Want Him Recalled

Gascón is seeking to make the criminal justice system less punitive. He says his policies are designed to end mass incarceration and racial disparities, and that he wants to turn the system “upside down.”

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His prosecutors, in large numbers, do not.

“There’s a lot of us who are dispirited and feel beat down,” Deputy DA Ryan Erlich told us.

“It’s horrible. The morale sucks,” said one longtime prosecutor who did not want his name used because he feared retaliation. “It’s not a pleasant place.” He said Gascón is “dismantling the criminal justice system in L.A.”

Gascón said these are recalcitrant prosecutors who refuse to “evolve” and embrace a fairer, more humane approach to justice.

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The fierce resistance to his policies may be viewed as a “badge of honor,” said USC Law Professor Jody Armour, who is a Gascón supporter. “This kind of dissension is real evidence of transformative change.”

At the same time, Armour said some level of “domestic tranquility” is needed for the DA to be successful.

Policies Slammed As Giving ‘The Defense Bar’ What It Wants

The DA faced intense opposition to his policies from his first day in office in Dec. 2020, when he issued a series of far-reaching directives:

  • He ordered prosecutors to stop seeking extra-long sentences for people accused of using a gun or being a gang member while committing a crime.
  • He banned his staff from prosecuting juveniles as adults.
  • He said he would no longer seek the death penalty, and prohibited prosecutors from seeking life sentences without the possibility of parole.
  • He said he would stop filing first-time misdemeanor charges for “quality of life” offenses “associated with poverty and mental health,” such as loitering or public intoxication.
  • He said the DA’s office would never oppose a person’s release on parole, saying the two options were support or neutrality.

After 100 days, Gascón proudly announced that he had eliminated 8,127 years of “unnecessary, excessive and expensive exposure to prison time” — a statistic no previous L.A. DA would have wanted, much less touted.

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“The policies read as if he went around to the defense bar and asked the defense bar what they wanted,” said Deputy DA John McKinney.

‘The Office In The Past Has Been Too Punitive’

Gascón has also established a Resentencing Unit to seek the early release of potentially thousands of prison inmates prosecuted by his deputies under previous DA’s.

“The vast majority of incarcerated people are members of groups long disadvantaged under earlier systems of justice: Black people, people of color, young people, people who suffer from mental illness, and people who are poor,” his directive said. “While resentencing alone cannot correct all inequities inherent in our system of justice, it should at least be consistent with policies designed to remedy those inequities.”

He basically took his middle finger, aimed it at the people who work for him and said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t care what you think.'

— Deputy DA John Lewin
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A second prosecutor who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation said he felt like Gascón essentially was calling him “an instrument of racism.” While he supports the DA’s ouster, he conceded that Gascón is correct in saying “the office in the past has been too punitive. I think that’s fair.”

Early on, there was open resistance to Gascón’s policies inside courtrooms. The union representing prosecutors won an injunction against some of his policies.

The DA never discussed his new policies with his staff before they were unveiled. His critics in the office say he has never sought their input or even buy-in.

“He basically took his middle finger, aimed it at the people who work for him and said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t care what you think,” said Deputy DA John Lewin, a nearly 30-year veteran of the office who led the team that secured the conviction of Robert Durst.

A 97% Vote To Back The Recall

The DA’s blanket prohibitions were particularly appalling to many prosecutors, said Erlich.

“We’re dealing in every case with a different defendant, a different victim, a different life story,” he said. “There needs to be an individualized assessment.”

Gascón recently backtracked slightly on a couple of fronts, saying he’s now willing to consider trying some juveniles as adults in “exceptional circumstances” and seeking life without parole in cases “where the underlying facts are extraordinary and/or the victims are uniquely vulnerable.”

I think that people are very stubbornly clinging to the old way of doing things whenever possible. There’s been a lot of unreasonableness within the office.

— One of the prosecutors who voted to oppose recalling Gascón

The extent of opposition to Gascón among his prosecutors became apparent in a recent vote on whether to recall the DA held by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the union that represents roughly 670 rank-and-file prosecutors.

Turnout was 82%, which union leaders said was unprecedentedly high, and 97% of those who voted said Gascón’s got to go. Recall organizers must gather at least 566,000 valid signatures by July 6 to qualify the effort for the November ballot.

The DA said the vote was disappointing but not surprising from a prosecutor’s union that endorsed incumbent DA Jackie Lacey when Gascón ran against her in 2020.

“I think that people that are very entrenched feel very threatened by the transformation and the change and they are fighting back,” he said. “The reality is there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure” to oppose him, Gascón added.

‘Clinging To The Old Way Of Doing Things’

Only 12 of the prosecutors who cast ballots said they wanted Gascón to stay in office.

One spoke to LAist anonymously out of fear of ruining work relationships.

“I think that people are very stubbornly clinging to the old way of doing things whenever possible,” this prosecutor said. “There’s been a lot of unreasonableness within the office.”

This veteran said some of the DA’s policies were ill-conceived and that he should have sought input from prosecutors first. They said some of their colleagues may have been more open to the changes if the DA had implemented them more gradually.

Should there be a moment where there will be an improvement in the relationships with those that are willing to evolve? Absolutely. And I believe that that will occur.

— DA George Gascón

Although he was DA in San Francisco for eight years, Gascón has never been a frontline prosecutor. In addition, the L.A. County DA’s office prosecutes exponentially more cases, and more complicated cases.

When Gascón entered office, the one-time LAPD assistant chief was offered help “by people who know that office well, have unimpeachable reputations, and were willing to do it for nothing,” but he declined their offer, said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson.

‘It’s So Gut-Wrenching To Me’

Levenson believes “there are [deputy] DA’s who needed updating,” and she supports much of Gascón’s reform agenda, but she believes it’s in jeopardy because of what’s happening in the office. “It’s so gut-wrenching to me because there was such hope for change,” she said, calling for “a full-fledged reboot.”

Gascón’s arrival hasn’t been all bad, Deputy DA Erlich said.

“He has forced us to think critically about the work that we do,” he said. "He’s also reminded us that community support is very important to the success of our office.”

And Erlich said Gascón has prompted prosecutors to think more critically about their relationship with police, whom prosecutors have sometimes been hesitant to scrutinize.

But Erlich still supports recalling Gascón over his policies and management.

Gascón is unapologetic.

He suggests it’s up to his prosecutors to change.

“Should there be a moment where there will be an improvement in the relationships with those that are willing to evolve? Absolutely,” the DA said, adding, “I believe that that will occur.”

Accusations Of Favoring Criminals Over Crime Victims

Meanwhile the vice president of the prosecutors union, Eric Siddall, is becoming a regular on conservative talk radio and Fox News, accusing Gascón of favoring criminals over crime victims with his desire for more lenient penalties.

Under the DA, crime inevitably will rise and there will be more victims, he said.

There is no evidence that Gascón is responsible for the current increase in crime — it predated him and is happening across the country in cities with both liberal and conservative DA’s.

Siddall acknowledges that there is a need for some reforms. For example, prosecutors should “do a little more in terms of diversion [and] leniency” for first-time offenders, and “we need to be more conscious about dismantling gangs without incarcerating every member of the gang,” he said.

Armour argues that Gascón is right to pursue wholesale change. The American criminal justice system almost since its inception has been based on “retribution, retaliation and revenge,” he said, praising the DA’s effort to fundamentally change his office’s approach to one “rooted in rehabilitation and restoration and redemption.”

“That new moral platform will be very different from the one that prosecutors themselves oftentimes have embraced for their entire career,” he said. “That’s going to be very hard for DA’s to accept.”

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Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.