On first day as L.A. County D.A., George Gascón eliminates bail, remakes sentencing rules
George Gascón embarked Monday on a plan to reimagine criminal prosecutions in Los Angeles County, announcing sweeping policy changes he’ll make as district attorney that include an end to cash bail, a ban on prosecutors seeking enhanced prison sentences and showing leniency to many low-level offenders.
The dramatic reversals of deeply ingrained, traditional law enforcement strategies in the nation’s largest district attorney’s office, also will include a review of thousands of old cases to determine whether lighter sentences or prisoner releases should be sought, Gascón said in a speech during his swearing-in ceremony.
“I recognize for many this is a new path … whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me. I ask you to join me on this journey,” he said. “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”
The reforms announced Monday added to a list of moves Gascón vowed to make during a contentious election against the incumbent district attorney, Jackie Lacey, including a promise to bar his prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in new cases and to end the practice of trying juveniles as adults. He followed through on both issues Monday, announcing them among the slew of new policies he is implementing.
Even before Monday’s swearing-in, which was held remotely amid the surging number of coronavirus cases, Gascón’s plans had already drawn concerns from the ranks of the 1,200 deputy district attorneys, some of whom have complained that the new top prosecutor drew up his new, aggressive playbook without sufficient input from the office he now runs.
Wariness among those not aligned with his progressive agenda gave way to something closer to panic after Gascón spoke Monday.
“His policies are a slap in the face to crime victims — both past victims and the ones to come. His blanket policies do not take into account that we are the only people standing between truly dangerous criminals and the general public,” said a veteran prosecutor, who requested their name not be used because they feared retaliation for speaking out against Gascón. “I am already getting concerned emails from concerned victims. What am I supposed to say to them?”
Longtime critics of Lacey who saw her as an overly punitive district attorney, meanwhile, rejoiced after Gascón’s news conference.
Jerod Gunsberg, a criminal defense attorney who often defends juvenile clients, said it was a “new day” in L.A. County. He praised Gascón for his plan to move away from prosecuting minors, a strategy that he said had deep, negative effects on accused teenagers and society as a whole.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve never seen a kid go into a juvenile probation camp and come out better. Ever,” Gunsberg said. “I’ve never seen a kid have a strike filed on them, at 16 years old and it improve their life or enhance public safety in any way.”
While Gascón’s victory over Lacey was widely viewed as a repudiation by voters of more traditional, “tough on crime” policies, his focus on reducing incarceration rates could meet resistance at a time when violent crime is surging in Los Angeles. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides for the first time in over a decade this year, and shootings are up more than 30% compared with 2019, according to L.A. Police Department records.
“The new D.A. talks a good game, but his plans will do nothing but further victimize Los Angeles residents,” a statement from the Los Angeles Police Protective League, one of several police unions that futilely spent millions to defeat Gascón, read in part.
Of all the policy changes Gascón laid out, the end to cash bail, which is set to go into effect Jan. 1, is perhaps the most seismic. Instead of seeking to hold criminal defendants in custody unless they can afford to post an amount of cash determined by a judge, prosecutors will be directed to ask judges to release them, except when someone is charged in a homicide or other violent felony. In those cases, prosecutors will seek to have defendants kept in custody.
Ultimately, it is up to a judge to decide whether to impose bail, which is allowable under state law. Judges, however, typically will defer to a prosecutor’s recommendation when setting the conditions under which a defendant will be released while awaiting trial.
As the district attorney for San Francisco, Gascón championed the use of risk-assessment tools in place of cash bail, which evaluate the likelihood that a defendant will commit more crimes if released. L.A. County’s court system tested the use of a similar tool last year, but Gascón’s announcement suggested a clean break from pretrial incarceration for the vast majority of people accused of crimes in the county.
“How much money you have in your bank account is a terrible proxy for how dangerous you are,” Gascón said Monday. “Today there are hundreds of people languishing in jails, not because they represent a danger to our community but because they can’t afford to purchase their freedom.”
On Monday, Gascón also ordered L.A. County prosecutors to stop prosecuting first-time offenders accused of a wide array of nonviolent crimes, including criminal trespass, disturbing the peace, public intoxication and loitering.
Defense attorneys contend such low-level nuisance crimes disproportionately affect homeless and mentally ill defendants, and can have long-term implications when those people try to find work and housing later in life. Instead of seeking plea deals or convictions, prosecutors will be expected to steer such defendants into pre-trial diversion programs that resolve cases through counseling or other forms of rehabilitation.
Although some of the county’s largest cities — including Los Angeles and Long Beach — have their own city attorney’s offices that oversee misdemeanor prosecutions, the district attorney’s office nonetheless filed nearly 100,000 misdemeanor cases last year. Gascón’s push toward diversion could dramatically lower that number. Only 3,935 defendants had been processed through alternative sentencing courts during Lacey’s tenure, records show.
The moves echo steps taken by Gascón in San Francisco. Nearly 10% of all misdemeanor cases presented to Gascón during his time in office in the Bay Area were diverted into pretrial alternative sentencing programs. The strategy was routinely lambasted by police and some community leaders, however, with many blaming the lack of punishment as a driving force behind a historic surge in property crime and car break-ins seen during Gascón’s tenure there.
Gascón went on Monday to say he would put an end to the use of sentencing enhancements, which prosecutors have long used to win longer sentences against defendants with prior felony convictions or who had been accused of being in a gang. Sentencing enhancements have come under fire in recent years for being excessively punitive and, in some cases, reliant on faulty police work. In the last year, for example, , several Los Angeles police officers were charged with falsely labeling people as gang members. That bogus information was fed into a statewide database that is sometimes used to justify imposing enhanced sentences on someone.
The district attorney’s office, he said, will also review “thousands” of cases in which defendants in L.A. County were sentenced under the enhancement rules — a move that could lead to prisoners having their sentences reduced or, in some cases, being released.
Along with promising to reopen four police shooting cases that Lacey declined to prosecute, Gascón also announced the creation of a use-of-force review board that will investigate a number of other police killings dating to 2012 for possible prosecution. Families of those killed by police in L.A. County will also be able to seek the same services as crime victims from the district attorney’s office.
Gascón acknowledged that the changes might seem enormous and asked doubters to trust him.
“For those of you at home who may be skeptical, I want to ask you to take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine your ideal safe neighborhood. I imagine most of you will imagine a neighborhood with parks, playgrounds and manicured laws. With kids playing and after-school programs flourishing. I don’t imagine most of you are imagining a neighborhood with a police officer on every corner,” he said. “We know what safety looks like. But we don’t offer it to every community equally.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.
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