LOS ANGELES — Minutes after George Gascón was sworn in as Los Angeles County district attorney, he fulfilled a promise to institute sweeping criminal justice reform, sending a lengthy memo ordering prosecutors to stop seeking longer prison sentences, among other changes.
To many of his deputies, it may as well have been a declaration of war. The union representing prosecutors quickly sued their new boss to block the policy.
More resistance followed. Other county district attorneys took the unusual step of criticizing Gascón’s policies as reckless and tried to take cases from his jurisdiction. Before completing his first 100 days in office, a campaign kicked off to recall him. It’s co-chaired by the widow of an officer killed in the line of duty who is furious Gascón won’t seek the death penalty.
“There’s a fundamental difference in philosophy in that he’s prioritizing the needs of the accused and ignoring the needs of public safety and the victims,” said Michele Hanisee, a deputy district attorney and president of the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors.
Gascón said anyone surprised with his policies wasn’t paying attention during last fall’s campaign, and labeled opponents old-school fearmongers.
“They continue to follow the playbook of the ‘80s and ’90s,” Gascón said. “It’s a simple message, right? Scare the heck out of people, and hopefully that will work for you.”
Gascón is part of a wave of progressive DAs elected in cities including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas. As the largest DA’s office in the country — with nearly 1,000 prosecutors and a jurisdiction with 10 million residents — LA is the highest profile.
Other reform-minded DAs have encountered resistance from within their offices and police, but none has faced blowback like Gascón, said Daniel Medwed a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
“I’m sort of hard-pressed to think about what other obstacle he could face,” Medwed said.
In November, Gascón unseated two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey in a campaign of contrasts and contradictions between fellow Democrats.
Gascón, a Cuban immigrant raised in Los Angeles, rose from beat cop to assistant chief of the LAPD before being appointed police chief in Mesa, Arizona, and then San Francisco. He later was district attorney of that city. Despite his police background, law enforcement groups opposed his reform platform.
Lacey, a career prosecutor who witnessed crime growing up in a tough LA neighborhood, was the first woman and Black person to serve as DA. But she clashed with Black Lives Matter for failing to prosecute officers in hundreds of deadly shootings.
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-LA, held weekly protests calling for Lacey’s ouster. Before the election, she warned Gascón they would protest him, too, if he didn’t follow through on campaign promises.
So far, he has surpassed expectations. The group has gone from tweeting #JackieLaceyMustGo to #StandWithGeorge.
“It’s a very strange turn for me,” Abdullah said. “I’m not used to standing alongside and feeling like we have to flank the district attorney. But that’s where we are because he is being really steadfast in his commitment to those reforms that we have been pushing for years.”
When Gascón took office Dec. 7, he imposed his campaign agenda: not seeking the death penalty; not prosecuting juveniles as adults; ending cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; and no longer filing enhancements that trigger stiffer sentences for certain elements of crimes, repeat offenses or being a gang member.
Gascón argues enhancements and so-called three-strikes allegations — where a third serious or violent felony can trigger a life sentence — leads to excessive and costly incarceration, hasn’t improved safety and has resulted in more repeat offenders.
His critics say studies don’t support his policy and that the additional penalties add necessary prison time to punish egregious crimes.
Richard Ceballos, a 30-year LA prosecutor who had challenged Lacey and then supported Gascón, expected a more conservative approach. He thought Gascón, as an outsider, would get to know people in the office first.
Instead, he acted “almost like, ‘I’m the savior, the messiah of LA’s criminal justice system and I’m going to do this without really consulting anyone,’” Ceballos said. “That was probably one of the dumbest things he could have done.”
Gascón ordered more than 100 enhancements dropped, including one that elevates a hate crime from misdemeanor to a felony. The move infuriated victims’ advocates and Gascón backpedaled, restoring enhancements in cases involving children, the elderly and people targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.
Still, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys took him to court. A judge’s preliminary ruling prevents the office from dropping enhancements already charged and requiring filing strike allegations.
On his 100th day in office last week, Gascón touted that 70% fewer sentencing enhancements were filed in his first three months compared to a year earlier. He said conservative calculations estimated 8,000 years of sentences were trimmed, saving $600 million in future prison costs at the rate of $80,000 per inmate a year.
Opponents swiftly countered, questioning why that would be a success and asserting Gascón couldn’t show that eliminating enhancements reduces crime or promotes public safety.
The California District Attorneys Association has taken the unusual step of attacking him. Individual DAs have joined in, some seeking to move cases back to their jurisdictions.
Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, in an op-ed piece at Bakersfield.com, suggested local criminals, “take your criminal activity to Los Angeles, where you will be greeted with open arms.”
Gascón’s stance against the death penalty has angered families of slain police officers.
Under Lacey, the DA’s office was deciding whether to seek a death sentence for the killer of LA County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen. A parolee is accused of murder in the 2016 killing of Owen, who was shot four more times once he was down.
Owen’s widow is now co-chair of the campaign to recall Gascón.
“My husband for 29 years fought for victims’ rights to the point where he actually laid down his life for victims,” said Tania Owen, a retired officer. “I can tell you that no victim I ever encountered has ever said: ‘We don’t want these individuals held accountable and responsible to the full extent of the law.'”
Miriam Krinsky, the executive director at Fair and Just Prosecutions, which works with progressive prosecutors to develop policies that aren’t driven by incarceration, thinks Gascón will ultimately prevail in enacting his reforms because the voters backed him and others will see that past policies failed.
“When they’re willing to open their minds to a new way of thinking, I think they’ll see the wisdom in what Gascón is primed to do and that they’ll come on board,” Krinsky said.
Those who don’t, she said, may choose to move on.