Column: We’re swinging back toward ‘tough-on-crime’ before progressive reforms have had a chance

A supporter embraces Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascón after a news conference on the steps of the Hall of Justice in June.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. George Gascón, the cop-turned-reformer who came to office in 2020 promising to transform the justice system so it “works for everyone,” is fighting for his political life.

There’s a movement underway to recall him, and its backers say they’ve already raised $2.7 million. He is opposed by hundreds of rank-and-file prosecutors in his own office, who voted nearly unanimously last week to support his ouster.

Even his longtime friend and colleague, former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, recently rescinded his endorsement. Mayoral candidate Rick Caruso says Gascón’s progressive policies have “put people at risk and made our communities more dangerous,” and he recently contributed $50,000 to the recall effort.


On the defensive, Gascón reversed course and said he would allow minors to be tried as adults in certain cases. He then rescinded another policy, saying prosecutors could now in some situations seek life sentences without parole for murder defendants.

But those moves satisfied few people on either the right or the left.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

Gascón’s travails are substantial, but at least he can take comfort in the fact that he’s not alone. All around the country, progressive prosecutors who were winning elections just a few years ago by promising to undo the tough-on-crime policies of previous decades are under fire, struggling to keep their jobs in the face of rising violent crime rates and a growing political backlash.

In San Francisco, Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin faces a tough recall election in June. Boudin, who was elected in 2019, is being accused of coddling criminals and being “anti-cop,” among others things. Even San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, has gone after him. That’s not a promising sign.

In New York City, newly elected progressive prosecutor Alvin Bragg is butting heads with the new mayor, Eric Adams. Bragg’s instruction to prosecutors in his office not to seek jail or prison time for defendants in any but the most serious crimes didn’t go over well with City Hall.

It appears the most potent foil in the Los Angeles mayor’s race is Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

In Philadelphia, Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner was easily reelected in November, but in a race where opponents painted him as “radically dangerous” and blamed him for the rise in violent crime.

It’s a troubling state of affairs.

Progressive prosecutors have made their share of mistakes and, at times, have moved too quickly or in a tone-deaf way, often failing to explain their reforms to the public.

But Gascón and his fellow reformers have started a policy discussion that badly needs to be had. They’ve made changes that can’t be judged successes or failures yet.

The move to undermine these elected officials or toss them out in the middle of their terms is too-often driven less by facts than by emotion, fear and vague perceptions about rising crime. Political pressure comes from law enforcement’s old guard — including police unions, rank-and-file prosecutors and crime victims’ groups — who are often pushing anecdotes rather than data, scare stories meant to encourage a return to the familiar, throw-away-the-key policies they believe in.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Hannah Tubbs case won’t help the recall effort against Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

In Los Angeles, for instance, homicides are up for the second year, which is fuel for the fire Gascón faces. But homicides are rising in cities all around the country, including in jurisdictions that don’t have reform police chiefs and district attorneys.

What’s more, attributing crime increases to reform measures like California’s Proposition 47, which was co-written by Gascón and reduces some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, is simplistic at best, dishonest at worst. A 2018 study found no evidence that Proposition 47 led to an increase in violent crime. It had no effect on burglaries or auto thefts but possibly a small influence on larceny thefts. It reduced recidivism rates.

Nevertheless, Gascón’s opponents continue to insist he’s turned L.A. into a “pro-criminal paradise.”

The fact is, criminal justice reformers get many things right. Recidivism rates are still way too high. States and cities still don’t put sufficient resources into reentry programs, drug and mental health treatment or alternatives to incarceration. The cash bail system — which often allows people with money to get out of jail while poor people languish behind bars until trial — is an outrage. Systemic racial inequities persist at all levels of the criminal justice system.

Debunked tropes about California’s justice reforms supposedly causing crime keep coming up. They were false when crime was dropping, and they’re just as false now.

Don’t get me wrong: Cities need to be made safe. Dangerous criminals need to be kept off the streets. Police must be allowed to do their jobs, fairly and responsibly. Mottoes such as “defund the police” don’t help anything.

But a swing of the pendulum too far back toward the tough-on-crime mentality that dominated for so long would be a serious mistake.

Unfortunately, criminal justice policy too often does just that: It swings back and forth. A few grisly murders, a rising crime rate, a fearmongering politician or ballot proposition — and suddenly society lurches to the right. When voters feel safe again, policy swings back.

In the 1960s, there was a movement to encourage rehabilitation over punishment. By the 1980s and 1990s, rising crime rates, and rising fear of crime, led to tough-guy policies that filled — and overcrowded — state prisons for decades.

D.A. Gascón’s critics mount another recall campaign while he defends first year of reforms.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country for which data are available. The current generation of reformers rose up in response to that.

And now they may be shut down.

We need to break the cycle. We need to focus on what works. We need policies that fight crime effectively and are neither inhumane nor racially discriminatory.The terms of the debate shouldn’t be tough-on-crime versus soft-on-crime. Where reforms are proved effective they should be continued; where they are not, they should be abandoned or amended.

And while we’re at it, let’s let George Gascón serve out his term, and judge his success or failure when it’s over.