Newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón — who last week unseated incumbent prosecutor Jackie Lacey to be top cop in America’s second largest city — has vowed to act on his campaign pledge: Gascón has stated he will not pursue death penalty convictions and will “immediately stop prosecuting children as adults.”
Gascón’s pledge was spelled out in July in his extensive youth justice platform that opens with a quote from the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela stating, “There can be no keener reflection of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”
Amid anguished cries across the nation for an end to racist law enforcement and mass incarceration, Lacey and Gascón — a former San Francisco DA — ran a closely watched and high-cost race mostly focused on police killings, diversion programs and who was the more progressive candidate. Juvenile justice was rarely discussed.
But youth justice advocates, long frustrated with the current DA’s relatively more hard-line approach reacted with enthusiasm to Gascon’s victory over Lacey by about 236,000 votes, finalized on Friday.
Maureen Pacheco, who has spent more than three decades representing children in juvenile and adult court, said she is “thrilled” with Gascón’s decision to end the “barbaric practice” of prosecuting children in adult court.
“This move is the culmination of decades of work to reverse the failed ‘tough on crime’ policies that were based on soundbites and vengeance, where longer and longer prison sentences — including life without parole for kids — were the devastating ‘solution,’” Pacheco wrote in an email to The Imprint.
The number of juveniles in Los Angeles County transferred to the adult criminal justice system, where young people face longer prison sentences and harsher treatment, has tumbled to historic lows in recent years. Yet Gascón’s pledge would represent a significant departure from past practice in Los Angeles by abandoning the practice altogether in the nation’s largest county-run district attorney’s office.
In an interview with The Imprint in August, Gascón, a former Los Angeles police officer, said his decision not to send youth to the adult legal system represents an “evolution” in his thinking and an increased understanding of science revealing that a person’s brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.
“A couple decades ago, I felt that if you committed an adult crime, you should pay adult consequences,” Gascón said. “I don’t believe that anymore. I would hope that we would actually get to a point where we outlaw the practice entirely.”
According to analysis of California Department of Justice data by Laura Ridolfi of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, between 2013 and 2018, District Attorney Lacey’s office prosecuted the cases of 229 youth who were ultimately transferred to adult court. That includes 89 minors who were automatically sent to the adult legal system by prosecutors through the direct file system, which was overturned by voters in a 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 57.
Overall 97%, or 219 of the 229 youth, were Black or Latino.
The numbers nonetheless declined significantly. In 2013, in Lacey’s first year as district attorney, 99 youth were prosecuted in an adult court. By 2018, there were only three such cases.
Throughout the state, the number of youth prosecuted as adults has plunged from its high in 2008 of about 1,200 young people to just 64 last year.
Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate for Human Rights Watch, said that while the issue of transferring youth to the adult system may have gone unnoticed by some during the election, that issue set the two district attorney candidates clearly apart.
Gascón campaigned on keeping youth in the juvenile court system. But Calvin said Lacey “went out of her way” to join other district attorneys in the state attempting through legal challenges to overturn Senate Bill 1391, which prohibited the transfer of 14- and 15-year olds to adult court.
That case will likely be heard by the California Supreme Court early next year.
The election of Gascón was closely watched by youth advocates due to another dramatic reform under way in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to shutter the state’s youth prison system beginning next summer. With no state youth facilities to house the most serious juvenile offenders, and many counties lacking adequate local detention programs for them, judges and some longtime reformers fear more teens will be sent to the adult system.
In the past, Los Angeles County has sent the highest share of juvenile offenders to the state youth prison system. But if Gascón acts on his pledge, those worst-case fears may not play out in Los Angeles, Calvin said, and judges, probation officers and defense counsel will be better able to focus on rehabilitation services from the outset of a case.
“By him taking out that pressure point, he’s really going to allow the system to really focus on what works,” Calvin said. “It changes the conversation.”
Barring adult prosecution is far from Gascón’s only idea for revamping the county’s juvenile justice. L.A. County’s new district attorney-elect said he hopes to import programs developed during his time in San Francisco, where he served from 2011 to 2019.
Those include a Young Adult Court serving 18- to 24-year-olds using a “collaborative” model, which emphasizes an alternative response for some felony offenses and Make It Right, a restorative justice program for youth offenders facing charges for serious offenses, including murder, robbery and weapons.
Gascón said his Make It Right program is “victim-centered,” wrapping services around crime survivors while forcing youth who commit offenses to face their victims and find a way to repair the damage. That alternate path to accountability is much more difficult to achieve, but Gascón claims that youth who completed the program had a recidivism rate of just 13%, compared with 53% for those who were prosecuted in a more traditional manner.
“We turned the table upside down,” he said in August.
Los Angeles County’s incoming DA will take office as sweeping juvenile justice reforms are now before the Board of Supervisors. Last month, a county work group completed a 10-month process of re-envisioning the county’s juvenile justice system, and its provocative plan includes eliminating the county Probation Department and creating “youth engagement and support teams” that would respond to emergencies. Under the plan, juvenile halls and camps would largely be replaced by Safe and Secure Healing Centers run by community-based organizations.
While his campaign did not respond to a request for comment Monday, Gascón said in his youth justice platform that he supported “shrinking probation’s footprint” through the work group in favor of “a system focused on youth development and well-being.”
With a nod to the work of youth justice advocates in Los Angeles, Gascón said reforms that were once thought to be too ambitious are now on the verge of being tested.
“Things that I thought would be aspirational are now very concrete,” he said in the August interview. “I see a path.”
Gascón’s early first steps will be under heavy scrutiny in a tense Los Angeles, a city that has suffered the repeated killing of people of color by law enforcement officers. In a sometimes heated discussion with Black Lives Matter activists Monday night, he didn’t shy away from the weight of expectations.
“Understand, I’m not Jackie Lacey,” Gascón told participants in an online community meeting. “But if you don’t think I’m doing the job I’ll leave and you find somebody else.”