Gascón launches juvenile diversion program amid claims it goes too far

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón smiles in a crowd
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón mingles with supporters during a June rally outside the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Minors accused of a wide array of crimes, including robbery, sexual battery and arson, will be eligible for a new diversion program launched by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón that spares offenders from criminal charges and requires them to make amends in other ways.

Gascón unveiled details of how his Restorative Enhanced Diversion For Youth program will work in an internal memo to prosecutors last week.

While teens accused of the many serious violent crimes — including murder, rape and any offense in which a gun was used or someone was seriously injured — would be barred from the program, those facing charges of burglary, vehicle theft, assaults or robberies that didn’t result in serious injury, arson or sexual battery can be selected, according to the memo, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.


Under the initiative, an accused minor can be placed in the diversion program before criminal charges are filed only if the victim of the crime agrees to participate and if the accused takes responsibility for the crime.

If the victim consents, an outside service provider will take over the case and devise “an individually tailored program designed to address the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior, such as mental health needs or substance use,” Gascón said in a statement.

It is expected that offenders will be required to meet face-to-face with their victims in “restorative justice conferences,” officials said.

“This program will help repair the immense harm that criminal behavior inflicts on our community by giving crime victims the opportunity to actively participate in the restorative justice process,” Gascón said.

Gascón first announced the program during a November news conference, but offered few specifics on how it would work.

The memo, which was sent Friday and spelled out the types of crimes that qualify for diversion, sparked an immediate backlash from critics inside and outside the D.A.’s office who believe progressive reforms being pushed by Gascón go too far.


Sacramento Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, a frequent critic of Gascón who is running for state attorney general next year, decried the new policy, calling it Gascón’s “latest reckless order.”

“No charges for 17-year-olds who commit child molest, raping a drugged victim, domestic violence, sledge hammer smash n grabs, robbery of an 80-year-old, and torture of animals,” she wrote on Twitter Friday. “What a disgrace.”

Alex Bastian, a special advisor to Gascón, said Schubert was wrong to suggest everyone accused of each crime listed in the memo would be put into the diversion program. Each case, Bastian emphasized, will be reviewed individually.

Those checks make the program different from the an all-or-nothing approach Gascón has taken to juvenile cases over the past year, in which he has refused to try any teens as adults — even those accused of grisly murders.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Sharon Woo knocked down warnings from some opposed to the program that a large number of juveniles accused of serious crimes will be allowed to avoid being judged and punished in court. The three service providers managing cases referred by the district attorney’s office have resources to manage only about a dozen cases per month, Woo said.

Critics inside Gascón’s office, like Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, took issue with what he said was the memo’s vagueness. He noted, for example, it did not explicitly bar offenders accused of crimes committed with a knife or blunt instrument. Hatami also warned that juveniles involved in recent organized smash-and-grab robberies at high-end retail stores could be granted diversion under the policy.


Woo said it was unlikely that a juvenile who colluded “with multiple individuals to steal high-end items solely for the purpose of fencing” would receive diversion through the program. While the policy doesn’t explicitly bar crimes where juveniles possessed or used a weapon other than a gun, Woo also said she doubted prosecutors would refer such cases given the limited number of slots available for the program.

Others expressed concern with any diversion model that would ask the victim of a sex crime to meet with their alleged abuser.

Jane Manning, director of The Women’s Equal Justice Project and a former sex crimes prosecutor in New York, warned that juvenile sexual battery defendants often victimize people in a similar age group, meaning Gascón’s policy could help one teen, but harm another.

“It’s important to find alternatives to incarceration for young offenders in many kinds of cases. But restorative justice is hugely problematic in sex offense cases,” she said. “If you’re dealing with young offenders, then often you’re dealing with young victims too. And the idea that you’re going to put the victim back in the same room as the perpetrator, that’s going to be the opposite of trauma-informed in many cases.”

Woo said the memo erroneously suggested felony sexual battery cases would be eligible for diversion. Misdemeanor sexual battery cases, however, remain eligible, she said.

Jerod Gunsberg, an attorney who often represents juveniles, said critics are reading too much into the memo and ignoring the fact that many of the crimes that could qualify for diversion describe a wide array of conduct.


A teen who steals a candy bar and shoves a security guard while fleeing the scene, for instance, could be charged with robbery, Gunsberg said.

“People that engage in just teenage behavior, while I’m not condoning it, taking someone’s bike and there’s some pushing and shoving over that? A theft where somebody tries to pull their backpack back?” he said. “If there’s enough force there, a D.A. can file a robbery.”