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Los Angeles County D.A. Gascón backtracks on policies on juveniles, life sentences

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón holds a news conference in June 2021.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County prosecutors can now seek to try juveniles as adults and pursue life sentences against defendants in certain cases, according to memos issued Friday by Dist. Atty. George Gascón, marking a major shift in his all-or-nothing stances on certain criminal justice reform issues.

When he first took office in late 2020, Gascón made waves by immediately banning prosecutors from seeking the death penalty or life sentences without the possibility of parole, while also severely limiting the way prosecutors could use sentencing enhancements and ending the practice of trying juveniles as adults.

Although the moves were in line with the broader platform of restorative justice Gascón ran on, critics have decried the so-called blanket policies and demanded he consider trying juveniles as adults or seeking life sentences when defendants are accused of especially heinous conduct.

That moment came late Friday. Committees will be created to evaluate “extraordinary” cases where a defendant’s conduct might require harsher penalties than those allowed under Gascón’s policies, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

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In cases involving juvenile defendants, that could mean transferring their cases to adult court. In murder cases, that means prosecutors can now seek to file special circumstance allegations against a defendant in certain situations — such as killing a police officer who is on duty or killing a witness — making them eligible for a maximum sentence of life without parole.

Under California law, defendants convicted of murder with special circumstances can only be sentenced to death or life without parole, but Gascón’s ban on the use of capital punishment was not affected by Friday’s announcement. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also issued a moratorium on the use of the death penalty statewide.

Dist. Atty. George Gascón announces sweeping policy changes for cash bail in L.A. County and bans seeking sentencing enhancements in nearly all cases.

The filings would still need to be approved by each committee, which will include high-ranking prosecutors and members of Gascón’s executive team. Gascón’s chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, will sit on both committees, and former public defender Alisa Blair, who oversees the office’s policies on juvenile cases, will sit on the panel deciding the futures of teen defendants, according to the documents.

“The District Attorney is firmly committed to his principles. One of these underlying principles is to constantly refine what we are doing so that we can continue to enhance public safety in a thoughtful manner,” said Alex Bastian, a special advisor to Gascón, in an emailed response to questions about the shift. “That is what the D.A. has always done, and what he will continue to do. We are now more than one year into his term, he has listened to community members, victims and colleagues.”

Earlier this week, Gascón announced a smaller modification to his policy on juvenile cases and told The Times he was open to “evolving” his juvenile policy, but stopped short of saying it would allow for expanded prosecutions of juveniles as adults.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón has revised his blanket ban on trying juveniles as adults, which had drawn the ire of critics.

The move comes as Gascón is facing increased criticism over his handling of juvenile cases and the political pressure of a second attempt to recall him from office.

In January, a 26-year-old transgender woman was allowed to plead guilty in juvenile court for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl because the crime occurred when the defendant was a teenager. The result drew widespread condemnation.
The committee seeking to recall Gascón from office has already raised $1.8 million, more than the entirety of the money pooled to back a failed recall campaign last year. The union representing rank-and-file prosecutors is also expected to vote to support the recall early next week.

Critics were quick to accuse Gascón of playing politics with his policies.

“Over the past year, George Gascón and his policies have wreaked havoc on the criminal justice system and made all of us less safe,” said Eric Siddall, vice president of the union representing line prosecutors. “Now he’s abandoning his social experiment not because he’s learned anything or wants to make us safer, but because he knows that the politics aren’t in his favor.”

Ex-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, one of Gascón’s lone supporters among police leaders, rescinded his support of the district attorney last week.

A 26-year-old who pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl will end up in juvenile custody or be set free on probation, despite a criminal record that includes another allegation of sexual abuse of a child.

Gascón has also become something of a political football in the Los Angeles mayor’s race: City Councilman Joe Buscaino announced his support of the recall late last month, and billionaire Rick Caruso has also slung barbs at the D.A. since announcing his candidacy.

“We are supposed to believe that he has suddenly changed his entire belief system overnight?” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, a proponent of the recall. “He is a politician, and he believes he will be recalled and lose his job. Don’t be fooled, Los Angeles.”


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