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George Gascón’s plans to overhaul prosecutions meet early resistance from judges, others

George Gascón speaks at a lectern in front of a crowd of people holding his blue campaign signs
Major policy changes by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, shown here during a campaign event, are meeting resistance from judges and others.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On his first day in office, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced sweeping changes that he promised would dramatically alter how justice is delivered in the county.

But in the week since his heady proclamations, Gascón’s reform plans have been met with resistance from judges, his own prosecutors and crime victims, who are challenging both the ethics of his vision and whether he has the authority to carry out one of its main components.

That Gascón has run into pushback comes as no surprise, as a clash between his progressive agenda and more traditional law enforcement strategies seemed inevitable. But the friction has heated up with startling speed and intensity, affording the district attorney no honeymoon period as he tries to reimagine how an office that files more than 100,000 criminal cases each year carries out its mission.

Gascón has succeeded in quickly locking in several significant policy changes, including barring prosecutors from seeking the death penalty or trying juveniles as adults. And defendants facing a number of misdemeanor crimes can now avoid prosecution by enrolling in diversion programs. Starting in January, prosecutors will no longer be allowed to seek cash bail.

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But his attempt to eliminate sentencing enhancements has met significant resistance. Enhancements can add several years to prison terms for defendants who meet certain conditions, such as those who are felons or gang members, or those who commit hate crimes or attack police.

Gascón has long argued that penalties for underlying crimes are significant on their own and that sentencing enhancements lead to excessive prison terms that disproportionately affect Black and Latino defendants, while not deterring crime.

“People that commit a crime … they are going to face accountability. And that accountability will be proportionate to the crime,” he said. “Enhancements do not have anything to do with accountability.”

Gascón, however, relented somewhat Friday. In a memo to prosecutors, he reinstated the use of sentencing enhancements “in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified extraordinary circumstances,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by The Times.

Prosecutors now are allowed to seek enhancements in hate-motivated attacks, cases of elder and child abuse, sex abuse and sex trafficking, the memo said. With the approval of a supervisor, enhancements can also be sought in cases in which a victim suffers “extensive” physical injuries or a weapon is used in a way that threatens a victim’s life during a crime, said interim Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Iniguez.

The backtracking came a day after Gascón vowed at a news conference that he would not relax the policy banning sentencing enhancements because he worried doing so would give prosecutors too much latitude to seek excessive prison terms.

That hard-line stance softened after a meeting Thursday night with members of the LGBTQ community and experts on hate crimes, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, who attended the meeting.

Through the first two weeks of Gascón’s term, judges have emerged as a significant roadblock to his enhancement policies.

After a deputy district attorney sought to dismiss an enhancement against a defendant with a prior felony conviction last week, Superior Court Judge Alison M. Estrada said the prosecutor had “no independent authority” to do so unless the dismissal was in the interest of justice or due to a lack of evidence.

When the prosecutor said he was only acting on Gascón’s order, Estrada denied the motion, drawing a cheer from two LAPD detectives sitting in the back of the courtroom. Judges in other courthouses around the county, including Long Beach, Inglewood and the Antelope Valley, have made similar decisions, attorneys said.

Gascón tried to fashion a workaround to the judges’ objections Tuesday, instructing prosecutors to tell judges that dismissing enhancements is, in fact, in the interest of justice because the sentences imposed for the underlying crimes are “sufficient to protect public safety.”

If a judge still refuses, the order directs prosecutors to file amended charging documents that do not include the sentencing enhancements, according to a copy of the order reviewed by The Times. Gascón also wants prosecutors to alert their supervisors when a judge refuses to throw out an enhancement.

Some prosecutors have raised objections as well, questioning the ethics of Gascón’s order that they say requires them to make representations in court that they don’t believe in.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos, who is prosecuting a group charged in a series of brutal stabbings of transgender women and made an unsuccessful bid for district attorney, asked a judge to dismiss hate crime enhancements in the case Tuesday but refused to say doing so would be in the interest of justice. The judge ultimately blocked the motion to dismiss.

“He clearly has a right to make these motions,” Ceballos said of Gascón. “We have to follow them; however, we cannot represent to the court that it is in the interest of justice if we don’t believe it. That would violate the rules of professional responsibility.”

On Wednesday, Gascón scoffed at that idea.

“What we’re doing is certainly not unlawful and not unethical. Prosecutors are sworn to follow the directives of the elected D.A. as long as he or she is working within the law, and I firmly believe that I am,” he said.

In a bruising race against longtime Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, Gascón was clear that if he won the election he intended to overhaul criminal justice in L.A. County. He earned the enthusiastic backing of L.A.'s increasingly powerful progressive bloc and received major financial backing from wealthy supporters of criminal justice reform.

Now he is under pressure to deliver on his promises as some victims’ rights activists and law enforcement officials are pushing back. Gascón said Wednesday he understands the changes he’s making have unnerved some prosecutors in his office.

“When you have such a radical change within a line of work and within an organization, there is going to be a lot of uneasiness and there are going to be people that feel very unsettled by this,” he said. “The one thing I’m convinced of is that the men and women of the L.A. D.A.’s office came into work for the same reasons I did 40 years ago: to make sure that our communities are protected.”

The union representing rank-and-file deputy district attorneys — one of many law enforcement unions that spent millions opposing Gascón’s candidacy — issued a memo this week expressing concern that some of the district attorney’s directives would require prosecutors “to violate the law and our duty of candor to the court” and expressed concern that some would face discipline or termination.

Those fears were fueled when Gascón disciplined the head prosecutor in the Compton courthouse, Richard Doyle, after he refused an order to withdraw charges against a man who had participated in recent protests against police.

Doyle, according to two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the situation, was issued a letter of reprimand last week for refusing to dismiss the case against Emanuel Padilla, who was charged with attempting to derail a city commuter train during a protest by dragging metal cables across the train’s tracks. The charge carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.

In one of his first acts as district attorney, Gascón ordered charges against Padilla to be dropped.

Max Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón’s transition team, said video of the incident made it clear there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against Padilla.

“The video evidence we have seen does not show Mr. Padilla placing, dropping or otherwise putting any object in the path of a train,” he said, adding that many sheriff’s deputies were at the protest and did not see reason to arrest Padilla.

After Doyle refused to dismiss the case, a member of Gascón’s executive team appeared in Compton to drop the charges, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Szabo declined to comment further because the issue was a personnel matter. Attempts to contact Doyle were not successful.

A Google document seeking to collect information on “non-compliant” deputy district attorneys also circulated in recent days. The document was reviewed by The Times last week, and several public defenders confirmed they had received the link as well.

Both a spokeswoman for the public defender’s office and Szabo said no one in their offices had created the document. The link was disabled shortly after The Times began asking questions about it.

The fight over sentencing enhancements underscores the challenges Gascón faces as he tries to address what he and others say are deep-seated inequities that have arisen out of the office’s long-running focus on seeking heavy sentences on behalf of crime victims.

Gascón and his supporters point to research that shows enhancements disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities and have questioned whether they serve any public safety purpose.

Roughly 90% of defendants from L.A. County sent to prison under sentencing enhancements were people of color, said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s penal code revision committee.

People convicted of serious violence such as murder or attempted murder will receive lengthy prison sentences that make enhancements unnecessary, Romano said. The men accused of attacking the transgender women, for example, face multiple charges of attempted murder, which could carry a sentence of life in prison. The hate crime enhancements they each face would add a maximum of three years each to a sentence.

“In many, many cases, the enhancement results in a sentence that is far longer than the underlying criminal conduct, and it becomes the tail wagging the dog,” Romano said. “There is still ample room to impose long sentences in crimes, especially violent crimes.”

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.


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