Essential California: The new L.A. D.A.’s big first day

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón delivers remarks after taking the oath of office on Monday.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón delivers remarks after taking the oath of office Monday at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in Los Angeles. He became the 43rd district attorney for the county during a virtual ceremony.
(Bryan Chan / Los Angeles County)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Dec. 8, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

During his campaign to unseat incumbent Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, challenger George Gascón vowed to dramatically overhaul an office he has criticized as being part of an unfair criminal justice system.

The progressive prosecutor defeated Lacey in November, despite fierce opposition from law enforcement unions. Gascón’s moves in the weeks that followed — including choosing Black Lives Matter organizers for his first major meeting after the election and announcing a transition team featuring civil rights lawyers and bail reform activists — made clear that electoral victory would not soften his calls for reform.

But Gascón’s first day in office still sent shockwaves through Los Angeles, with the new district attorney announcing a slate of sweeping policy changes shortly after being inaugurated Monday.


[Read the story: “On first day as L.A. County D.A., George Gascón eliminates bail, remakes sentencing rules” in the Los Angeles Times]

The list of dramatic reforms includes a plan to end the use of cash bail in the nation’s largest court system, a ban on his prosecutors seeking sentencing enhancements in nearly all cases and plans to review thousands of old cases to determine whether lighter sentences or prisoner releases should be sought. Gascón will also bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in new cases and will end the practice of trying juveniles as adults in the county.

My colleague James Queally describes the policy changes as “dramatic reversals” to the “deeply ingrained, traditional law enforcement strategies” that have long guided the office. And, as James reports, the moves have already drawn concerns from the ranks of the 1,200 deputy district attorneys who will now serve under Gascón.

Some of the changes will go into effect immediately, but the use of cash bail in L.A. County will end Jan. 1. Prosecutors will instead be directed to ask judges to release defendants while their cases move through the courts, except when someone is accused of homicide or a small number of other serious crimes.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California’s massive and deadly coronavirus surge continued unabated, with another new case record broken at the start of the week: At least 33,000 new coronavirus cases were reported Monday alone, according to The Times’ county-by-county tally of infections. That shatters the previous single-day record, set Friday, when 22,369 coronavirus cases were tallied. Hospitals are already contending with an unprecedented wave of more than 10,000 COVID-19 patients, and the state has recorded more than 20,000 deaths from the illness.


As bleak as things are now, the top of the surge may be yet to come, as experts say the ramifications of travel and gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday have yet to be fully realized. Los Angeles Times

The new two-year session of the California Legislature began Monday, as legislators took the oath of office under some of the most unusual circumstances in state history. Only a few proposals were formally introduced, with most of the work to begin in early January. But the initial legislation — including a proposal to extend the current eviction protection rules through the end of next year — offered a glimpse at an agenda to tackle both short-term and systemic problems laid bare by the rise in COVID-19 infections and community shutdowns. Los Angeles Times

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The 2020 edition of The Times’ 101 restaurant list celebrates resilience: As restaurant critic Bill Addison writes, he and fellow critic Patricia Escárcega rethought what the annual guide should look like in this bleak moment, when the industry they cover is in such deep distress. Gone are the usual numeric rankings, and a list of people and organizations working for equity in the food space are highlighted for the first time. Take a gander at this year’s list, and maybe order some takeout while you’re at it. (Note: The full list is available only to Times subscribers.) Los Angeles Times

A beautiful burger
The exquisite “Jazz Burger” from Jitlada, named for the restaurant’s charismatic proprietor, Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong. The East Hollywood southern Thai restaurant is on the 101 list.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Dangerous COVID-19 surge leads to hard shutdown of L.A. public schools: Los Angeles campuses will shut down completely beginning Thursday for all in-person tutoring and special services, as prospects for fully reopening the nation’s second-largest school district recede further into 2021. The new shutdown will fall hard on students with special needs — those who had made it back to campuses for services. Los Angeles Times

Warner Bros.’ streaming move raises big financial questions in Hollywood: If studios are no longer trying to maximize ticket sales, what will that mean for often lucrative pay packages tied to a film’s performance in theaters? New York Times

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President-elect Joe Biden named L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti as one of five co-chairs for his upcoming inauguration. Meanwhile, daily protests organized by Black Lives Matter continue outside the mayor’s residence, with the aim of dissuading the incoming Biden administration from appointing Garcetti to any federal post. Associated Press

Fresno officials are expected to name an Oklahoma City deputy chief as the city’s next police chief. Sources tell the Bee that Paco Balderrama has been in Fresno shopping for a home and that the announcement will come Tuesday. Fresno Bee

San Francisco Health Officer Tomás Aragón will head the California Department of Public Health. The appointment comes after the department’s prior leader, Dr. Sonia Angell, abruptly announced her resignation in August. San Francisco Chronicle


Bank of America estimated Monday that fraud in California’s unemployment benefits system could total $2 billion and said it has identified 640,000 accounts with suspicious activity that should be investigated to determine whether they are bogus and should be shut down. Los Angeles Times


The Trump administration chose to not lock in a chance to buy millions of additional doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine over the summer, a decision that could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until manufacturer Pfizer fulfills other international contracts. Associated Press

Britain on Tuesday became the first Western country to start inoculating its residents against the coronavirus, embarking on a mass vaccination campaign that other countries will watch closely. It began with a 90-year-old who received the first shot of Pfizer’s vaccine. Los Angeles Times

[See also: “Two vaccines might get emergency approval this month. Here’s what you need to know” in the Los Angeles Times]


Tempers flare as Southern California restaurants push back on outdoor dining ban: The new regulations capped a tumultuous weekend for restaurant owners and government officials. Los Angeles Times

Elon Musk has moved his private Musk Foundation to Texas, fanning relocation speculation. Musk’s SpaceX already has two facilities in Texas, and Tesla is building an assembly plant in Austin. Bloomberg

From the annals of pandemic hobbies: Previously on the decline, hunting and fishing have seen a California resurgence in recent months. Cap Radio

Homesick for the holidays? These Bay Area restaurants and bakeries ship nationwide. SF Gate

A poem to start your Tuesday: “The Promise We Live By” by Simon Ortiz. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 81. San Diego: partly sunny, 75. San Francisco: sunny, 64. San Jose: sunny, 70. Fresno: sunny, 64. Sacramento: sunny, 66. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Katey Johansen:

I was 16 years old when my dad took me to the L.A. auto dealer’s regular car auction to buy a car. In a sea of cars of all makes and models, I kept sitting in fancy sport cars or convertibles, but he bought me an old manual-drive Toyota. I didn’t know how to drive a manual car. When I told him, he handed me the keys and said, “You’ll learn. See you at home.” We lived in Orange County, so with basic instructions I quickly (and clumsily) learned to navigate the streets of L.A. and got home.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.