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Editorial: L.A. County voters elected George Gascón to change the criminal justice system. Let him do it

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón delivers remarks after taking the oath of office on Dec. 7.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón delivers remarks after taking the oath of office on Dec. 7. Gascón presented several policy directives that flesh out commitments he made during his campaign.
(Bryan Chan / Los Angeles County)

On Nov. 3, Los Angeles County voters elected George Gascón to be their new district attorney, and it wasn’t particularly close. Gascón won 53.5% of the vote, which is a remarkable feat for a candidate challenging an incumbent, in this case two-term Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey.

Gascón prevailed on the strength of his campaign to reform the criminal justice system by targeting historic inequities and excesses. He had a record of achievement as the district attorney of San Francisco, and he was part of a prosecutorial reform wave that has elected district attorneys in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Baltimore and numerous other jurisdictions across the nation. He and Lacey articulated vastly different approaches to prosecution in a series of preelection forums and debates, and the race and the issues were covered closely by The Times and other news outlets. Voters here saw their choices, and by a clear majority they chose Gascón.

It is no surprise that his opponents included deputy district attorneys loyal to Lacey. They saw, correctly, that with Gascón as their new boss, they would have to change the way they do their jobs and would be evaluated by new performance measures. So after voters opted for Gascón’s vision of criminal justice reform, and after he issued a set of directives on his first day in office to put his reform policies into effect, the deputies’ labor union went to court to block him. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Although the union — the Los Angeles Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys — is not challenging the election itself, it’s trying to forestall its practical effect. At stake is the power of voters to change the course of their criminal justice system. That’s in part because the union, oddly, seeks to minimize one of the cornerstones of American jurisprudence: prosecutorial discretion.

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Elected district attorneys are not mere filing clerks who simply write up every provable charge against every suspect and seek every maximum sentence. There are too many crimes and too many suspects for that. The whole reason the people elect district attorneys is to allow them to exercise their judgment about how to best apply limited resources of time, money and prison space, and how best to seek justice. District attorney discretion is limited mainly by laws that prohibit targeting people by their race or other protected factors and by the ability of their courtroom deputies to put the top prosecutor’s policies into effect, one case at a time. If voters don’t like the way a district attorney uses that discretion, they can elect a replacement.

The union takes issue with a Gascón directive that tells prosecutors not to seek most sentence enhancements (for example, those that call for additional prison time when an alleged perpetrator was a gang member). But prosecutors routinely decline to charge enhancements, often in the course of plea bargains in which they trade the threat of prison time for a defendant’s guilty plea or cooperation. Some of Gascón’s subordinates may be sorry to lose that leverage, but that’s a policy choice that the people properly vest in their elected district attorney, not in each courtroom deputy.

The union also objects to Gascón’s order not to seek additional prison time against repeat offenders under the “three strikes” law. That issue may seem slightly thornier at first glance because of statutory language stating that prosecutors “shall” plead and prove each previous serious or violent felony, but prosecutors have long preserved their discretion to file or decline to file “strikes” in the interests of justice as they see it. That’s a judgment that properly falls to Gascón, not his deputies.

The choice made by L.A. County voters is under assault from other quarters as well — law enforcement groups, other district attorneys, some local news outlets and national right-wing commentators. The California District Attorneys Assn., dominated by conservative, reform-defying prosecutors in small, rural counties that outnumber more populous urban counties like L.A., argues that Gascón’s policies promote the interests of perpetrators over victims. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has argued the same in a series of tweets.

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They’re wrong. Research shows diminishing returns from excessively long sentences that actually increase the likelihood of recidivism, meaning more crimes and more victims.

A district attorney properly considers the effect of charges and sentences on crime victims. In the end, though, a criminal case pits the accused perpetrator against the people, not against the victims. The people of Los Angeles County chose Gascón to represent them. Their choice should not be undone by disappointed deputies in his office or others around the state and nation who resist the increasingly loud demands for criminal justice reform.


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