Newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón is moving quickly to change how youth are prosecuted and held accountable for crimes – hiring a public defender to overhaul long-standing juvenile justice policies, ending the practice of trying children in adult court and halting the prosecution of truancy cases.
Among other sweeping changes to how adults are prosecuted, he has said his office will not file charges against foster youth with behavioral issues or minors who commit most misdemeanors. Kids will not be locked up for probation violations and some felonies could soon be handled through a restorative youth justice process, rather than a lock-’em-up approach, according to new guidelines.
Yet since his decisive defeat of incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey in November, Gascón has faced aggressive opposition from prosecutors within his office and throughout the state, and from some crime victims.
“Unfortunately some people still don’t believe that Biden has become president of the United States, and some people also still don’t believe that I should be the district attorney,” Gascón said in a county meeting earlier this month.
Late last year, the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys — a group representing prosecutors in Gascón’s own office — took the extraordinary step of filing suit against their new boss to block new sentencing guidelines he announced the same day he was sworn into office. The suit will be heard next week in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Gascón has vowed to overturn the “legacy of California’s ‘tough on crime’ era,” which has fed mass incarceration by tacking years or decades on to already-lengthy prison terms. On Dec. 7, he directed his prosecutors to stop filing “enhancements” in new or pending cases that fall under California’s three-strikes law and in those involving gangs or firearms. He also ordered his attorneys not to use prior juvenile court involvement to extend penalties in the adult justice system.
In response, the group representing deputy district attorneys said in court filings that following the new sentencing rules would force members to “act in a manner contrary to law, contrary to their oaths and duties as prosecutors and contrary to their ethical responsibilities as officers of the courts.”
“It’s hard to tell a victim of crime ‘Hey, we’re not gonna seek the maximum punishment, we’re going to seek far less punishment than what is required by the law, we’re not even going to follow the law because these policy directives say we have to give every benefit to the person who victimized you,’” Association of Deputy District Attorneys President Michele Hanisee told CBS recently.
Prosecutors in Sacramento and Fresno counties have said they won’t partner with the Los Angeles County DA’s office in cases. And the California District Attorneys Association accused Gascón’s office of ignoring the rights of crime victims. “Criminals in Los Angeles County have been bestowed an unimaginable windfall,” a letter from the statewide DA group reads.
The backlash has shown up in court as well. On Jan. 11, a judge blocked Gascón’s prosecutors from trying a multiple-murder case across two counties, citing concern about the impact of the new sentence-enhancement policies on victims. Instead, prosecutors from San Diego will handle part of the case.
Gascon’s opponents say crime victims would be harmed by his efforts to reduce prison terms. But Tinisch Hollins, California director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, said not all crime victims agree with the way law enforcement officials have long equated public safety and punishment.
“Longer sentencing didn’t prevent my family from being harmed,” said the San Francisco native, whose two brothers were killed by gunfire.
Instead, Hollins said, the survivors she represents often want programs to address the root causes of crime and those that support victims in the wake of tragedy – but that remains a rarity in most parts of the state.
“When you look at the landscape at the kinds of support that survivors have received and the investments that have gone into it, it’s slim to none,” she said.
Alisa Blair — a former public defender who will oversee juvenile justice in the L.A. district attorney’s office— agreed that the traditional rhetoric around the needs of victims misses the mark.
“When you’re dealing with the pain of losing a loved one, you’re not made whole because someone gets a longer amount of time,” Blair said in an interview with The Imprint. “You’re made whole through therapy, through financial assistance, through having a voice in the process.”
Blair said Gascón will implement new victim services that have often been lacking in Los Angeles under previous administrations. Using a model from San Francisco, he plans to have community outreach workers walk neighborhoods, soliciting information about crime and victims that residents may not be comfortable sharing with law enforcement.
The opposition to Gascón’s policies has not surprised his supporters, who say that the former San Francisco district attorney has attracted constant fire from conservative critics since co-authoring Proposition 47 in 2014, a change in the state’s criminal code to reclassify many nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors.
Rather than representing a radical change, L.A.’s new district attorney should be seen as someone who is bringing the county up to speed with practices in other parts of the country, said Miriam Krinsky, who heads the criminal justice reform organization Fair and Just Prosecution. His new policies for children and young adults are “incredibly significant” given the county’s recent past, she added.
“We have not been where other parts of the nation have been in concluding that when you look at brain science, young people simply should not be pushed into the adult system,” Krinsky said.
Krinsky’s group, based in Los Angeles, has also helped organize support for Gascón from 65 current and former prosecutors across the country, who filed an amicus brief on his behalf earlier this month.
Voters across the country have elected progressive prosecutors in recent years who have vowed to downsize bloated jail and prison systems and address disproportionate impacts on people of color. As with Gascón, many have faced fierce opposition both from within their offices and in the courts, Krinsky said. Some — like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krassner — have fired dozens of prosecutors. Others have faced legal actions because of decisions not to prosecute low-level offenses, like marijuana use.
“Large institutions like district attorney offices are like huge ships — they’re hard to turn,” Krinsky said.
Gascón faces special challenges in Los Angeles, where labor protections prevent him from a wholesale housecleaning. But over time, Krinsky said she expects Gascón to change the way the district attorney operates.
He has moved particularly fast to make changes to his juvenile unit. On Friday, he announced that Blair would oversee the new guidelines for children arrested in the county. Gascón also plans to implement a restorative justice program for juvenile felony offenses, similar to the Make It Right program he ran in San Francisco.
Gascón has said change is already underway in Los Angeles and noted that law enforcement referrals to the county’s diversion program for juvenile offenders have risen more over the past few weeks than at any point in the past five years.
The new DA’s plans come at a time when the county is moving forward on other juvenile justice reforms that include shuttering detention facilities and expanding therapeutic services and youth development programs. Like other counties in the state, as soon as July, Los Angeles must house dozens of the most serious juvenile offenders locally, following Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the California Legislature’s decision to close down the state’s once-notorious youth prison system.
Jo Kaplan, a longtime juvenile court lawyer and member of the county’s Probation Oversight Committee, welcomes the changes. Kaplan said the LA District Attorney’s Office has long been an obstacle to needed reform in the nation’s largest locally administered juvenile justice system, where children of color are incarcerated at a clip far higher than their share of the population.
“The punitive policies and practices of the office that you have taken over have truly ruined and destroyed thousands and thousands of lives,” Kaplan told Gascón at a county meeting this month.
To change that landscape, Gascón said the justice system must veer away from “a place of fear.”
“Doubling down on what hasn’t worked isn’t going to get us to a better place,” he said.