George Gascón wouldn’t compromise, until he did. Now, no one is happy
Since taking over as Los Angeles County’s district attorney, George Gascón had refused to compromise on sweeping changes he said were needed to remake an office he believed was prioritizing convictions and lengthy prison sentences over justice.
A rough few weeks has changed that.
Gascón has begun wavering in the face of incessant attacks from critics, a mounting recall effort and a growing perception he’s becoming politically isolated. Last month, he quietly conceded that there could be exceptions to the bans he imposed on seeking life sentences in murder cases or trying juveniles as adults.
And Gascón’s troubles deepened when he publicly acknowledged he had been wrong to insist that Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old transgender woman, be allowed to plead guilty in juvenile court to sexually assaulting a child. The crime happened when Tubbs was a teen and had not transitioned yet.
That mea culpa — a stark about-face for a man who rarely expresses doubt about the righteousness of his positions — took on a sheen of political damage control when Gascón announced it without explanation the day before Fox News published jail recordings of Tubbs mocking her lenient sentence and the victim.
Gascón’s backtracking seemed to do little or nothing to quell the furor from his detractors. Many of his own prosecutors have dismissed the policy changes as public relations spin that will have little practical impact. And it opened him up to new critiques from allies that he is playing politics with his principles.
It appears the most potent foil in the Los Angeles mayor’s race is Dist. Atty. George Gascón.
“He’s shown his hand that he’s not going to stand up for what’s just, and what’s right … he’s looking for what’s gonna save his ass,” said Dermot Givens, a political consultant who supported Gascón in 2020. “We don’t know what else is coming. The blood is in the water. The sharks are circling.”
In an interview last week, Gascón downplayed the significance of the moves. The decision to allow prosecutors to seek life sentences in rare cases had been in the works for months, he claimed. And the shift in his juvenile policy, he said, was motivated in part by the county’s failure to build an alternative to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, which will soon shut down.
“There hasn’t been a shift in my philosophy as to what is the right solution, but I work in the environment that I work in,” he said.
The response has not assuaged the L.A. County public defenders union, which has been a stalwart supporter of Gascón’s efforts to shift his office’s focus away from punishment and toward rehabilitation. The union issued a statement last week calling his recent policy changes “misguided” and warning that they could “cause immeasurable harm to our most vulnerable and marginalized youth clients and their communities.”
Sexual assault of 10-year-old sparks latest criticism of L.A. district attorney’s policies
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.
Even Gascón’s most senior advisor on juvenile policy, former public defender Alisa Blair, said last week that she disagreed with his decision. Nevertheless, she said, she believes teen defendants would be transferred to adult court only in extreme cases.
“I do continue to trust in George’s heart and his goals and I think ... it is going to be that if a juvenile case is transferred ... it will be an anomalous and egregious case,” she said.
Gascón swept into office on a promise to cut back on what he saw as overly punitive prison sentences that offered little public safety benefit. Juveniles, he argued, should never be tried as adults because studies show the brain’s decision-making capabilities don’t fully develop until a person reaches their mid-20s. Decades-long prison sentences, he said, do little to deter crime and eliminate any chance someone might be rehabilitated.
Going forward, prosecutors who want to seek a life sentence or transfer a juvenile to adult criminal court will need to petition internal committees that will decide on each request.
The reform-minded prosecutor has made a dramatic shift involving the case of Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old tried as a juvenile for assaulting a child.
Although Gascón claims these committees have been in development for weeks (or in the case of the special circumstances committee, months) neither he nor his advisers could explain in interviews how they will work. It remains unclear, for example, if prosecutors will need to win unanimous approval from the panels or a just a majority of members. Despite the confusion, one case is already on track to go before a committee.
Gascón said he didn’t put the committees in place earlier because he was aware many prosecutors in his office opposed his ideas and worried they would try to work around him if given the opportunity.
“One of the concerns that I have is I don’t want the exceptions to swallow the rule,” he said.
The panels will be comprised largely of members of Gascón’s inner circle, a group of political allies and public defenders whom most of his prosecutors don’t trust.
Prosecutors seek to try defendant as an adult in brutal arson-murder after Gascón lifts his ban
It is the first such motion since L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón backtracked last week on his blanket ban on trying juveniles as adults.
“Instead of admitting, ‘Hey, my policy is wrong, it’s dangerous’ … what we have is a committee that is put together like a kangaroo court,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lewin, a veteran prosecutor.
Gascón’s relationship with his prosecutors has continued to crater. The union representing prosecutors announced last week that about 80% of its 672 members cast ballots in a referendum on whether to endorse a possible recall of Gascón. All but 12 voted yes.
And prosecutors are openly speaking out against Gascón, a practice that was nearly unheard of under his predecessor, Jackie Lacey.
That broken relationship was highlighted by recent developments in the Tubbs case. Although she is 26 now, Tubbs was 17 and had not transitioned to female and went by a male name when she walked into a Palmdale restaurant in 2014, locked a 10-year-old girl in a stall and sexually assaulted her. Captured years later, she was still allowed to plead guilty in juvenile court last year due to Gascón’s policies. She was sentenced to two years in a youth facility.
Change or cronyism? D.A. George Gascón’s executive team met with mix of praise and suspicion
In his bid to reimagine criminal justice in L.A. County, Dist. Atty. George Gascón has assembled an inner circle of mostly defense attorneys and political allies. Critics say it is a largely inexperienced group being rewarded for loyalty.
Shortly before Fox News published its report about the recordings of Tubbs, Gascón released a statement, saying he had been wrong to insist that the case be kept in juvenile court.
“The complex issues and facts of her particular case were unusual, and I should have treated them that way,” he wrote.
On the calls, Tubbs laughs off her sentence and uses derogatory terms for transgender people, which led Gascón to question the validity of her gender identity. Following the Fox News report, The Times obtained summaries of other jail calls in which Tubbs used racial slurs and referred to her victim as “meat.”
Gascón and members of his inner circle said they had been unaware of the recordings until a Fox reporter asked about them on Feb. 17.
Prosecutors who have been ardent critics of their boss went on television to accuse Gascón of lying, claiming without evidence that he knew about the recordings weeks earlier and had done nothing until learning the recordings would be made public.
The prosecutor assigned to the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Shea Sanna, told The Times he had received the recordings from investigators in January. Emails reviewed by The Times show Sanna then shared them with his supervisor and the heads of the office’s juvenile division on Feb. 1. Whether the recordings were sent to higher-ranking officials is unknown.
Gascón said it is clear to him that some prosecutors in the office want to “undermine” his agenda.
“It is a problem if these folks got the email, they heard the tape, and they did not send it up,” he said.
None of the prosecutors Sanna emailed responded to requests for comment.
Regardless of Gascón’s motives for publicly acknowledging he mishandled the Tubbs case, veteran Democratic consultant Roy Behr said the district attorney made the only move available to him.
“One person’s backsliding is another person’s adapting to new facts, and he’s caught in the middle. People were going to be unhappy either way,” Behr said. “Whether he’s making a calculation based on justice or politics, only he knows.
Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner, who along with Gascón is a central figure in a progressive push to dramatically reshape criminal justice at the local level, said suggestions that Gascón has retreated or sold out on his campaign promises are overblown. He applauded Gascón for tailoring his policies to have a focus on “individual justice” and dismissed critics as having an “overly simplistic” view of the criminal justice system.
“It’s a level of honesty … prosecutors don’t have perfectly clear crystal balls … they can’t imagine every single possible scenario that could arise when they come up with a policy,” he said.
And while Gascón’s political fortunes may have taken a hit in the past few weeks, Krasner was quick to note he also faced withering criticisms for his policies amidst an uptick in violent crime in Philadelphia during his first term, before cruising to reelection last year.
Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.
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