By: Frances Prizzia | Criminal Justice Reform

On December 7th, George Gascon was sworn in as the 43rd District Attorney of Los Angeles. While Gascon campaigned on a progressive platform and brought his reputation as a reformer during his time as the District Attorney of San Francisco and the Police Chief of Los Angeles, I am not sure anyone could have anticipated the ambition of the agenda he announced the day he was sworn in.

Not content to wait for the voters or legislature to act, Mr. Gascon announced that the largest local prosecutors office in the country would immediately end all cash bail in the county except in cases of serious and violent felonies, will no longer seek the death penalty in any case, and will never charge a juvenile as an adult.

Additionally, the office will no longer prosecute first time offenders for minor misdemeanors, instead seeking to channel such people into diversion programs. The LA Times reported that last year, the office filed 100,000 misdemeanor complaints while during the entire tenure of Gascon’s predecessor, Jackie Lacey, only 3,935 defendants “were processed through alternative sentencing courts.”

Gascon also announced that the office will no longer seek to increase sentences through the use of enhancements. This may be the most drastic reform of all as it means his prosecutors will no longer be able to use strike priors, gang enhancements or gun enhancements when filing cases. These enhancements can drastically increase sentences and often lead to de facto life sentences. Gascon defended this policy with research that concludes the draconian sentencing policies in place in the state today are not supported by data.

As such, Gascon’s office will also review and consider resentencing for anyone convicted by his office that has already served 15 years in prison, and his deputies will be directed not to oppose motions by defense attorneys for resentencing in cases that have previously occurred that would have been outside of the current policy. Gascon estimates that the new policy could impact the sentences of 20 to 30 thousand previously sentenced people.

In addition, deputies will be required to seek permission to offer any greater sentence than probation if someone is probation eligible or the low term if someone is not.

Finally, Gascon’s office will immediately take another look at the evidence in four police shootings that Lacey’s office refused to prosecute and, through a newly created use of force, the review board will look back at additional shootings as far back as 2012 for possible prosecution.

The reaction among the law and order club was predictable. The office employs almost 1,000 attorneys who are used to the tough on crime rhetoric and policies of Gascon’s predecessors. Many are not happy. It seems Gascon understands that he is seeking to turn a massive vessel almost 180 degrees and all of the policies he has announced require deputies to seek approval for deviation from their head deputy and that head deputy to seek approval from Gascon himself.

As in other jurisdictions where progressive prosecutors have been elected, law enforcement has been openly hostile, arguing that violent crime is rising in Los Angeles, and the new DA is taking the exact wrong approach. However, it would seem that they are arguing against themselves. Much as Trump campaigned on all the ills of America while seeming to forget he had held power the last four years and was criticizing many things that he had failed to correct, the violent crime that police organizations point to is occurring while the draconian policies are in place. Gascon’s policies recognize that either we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of a crime problem or that, if we can, the cost is far too high. Gascon’s policies will ostensibly free up billions of dollars in state and local funds to address the root causes of crime. As he stated at his inauguration: “The status quo hasn’t made us safer,” instead Los Angeles has become a “poster child for the failed tough-on-crime approach.”

Gascon points to the fact that 7.4% of all state funds are spent on incarceration, $15.7 billion a year, while public education is underfunded, infrastructure repair is ignored, and people are hungry and sleeping in the streets. He also heavily emphasizes the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color. 93% of people sent to prison in Los Angeles County are people of color.

Sometimes change happens incrementally over long periods. In Los Angeles, we have just seen an actual revolution at the ballot box.

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