About the time Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón held a conference last month touting criminal justice reforms in his first year in office, the headlines were full of sensational crime.
We had a spate of smash-and-grab thefts, follow-home robberies, a rising murder tally. And then there was the horrific case of a teenage girl shopping in North Hollywood who was accidentally shot and killed by an LAPD officer who also fatally shot a man with a criminal record who was attacking customers.
Last year, an attempt to recall Gascón never gathered much momentum. But another one is under way, and its backers tell me they have more money this time, along with a growing coalition of supporters who want Gascón gone.
So a few days ago, I chatted with Gascón for an hour, exploring the question of how to deliver much-needed criminal justice reform while maintaining public safety.
Before I get to that, let me touch on the changes initiated by Gascón and the outrage they’ve drawn from his sharpest critics, who include L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other law enforcement officials.
In his own review of his first year in office, Gascón touts that juveniles are no longer being charged as adults, that he has eliminated many sentencing enhancements that contribute to “mass incarceration,” that he has ended cash bail for nonviolent felony offenses and that he is diverting misdemeanors associated with substance abuse, poverty and mental illness out of the criminal justice system.
Those reforms, along with opposition to the death penalty, are the essence of what Gascón campaigned on, and the former chief of police in San Francisco and Mesa, Ariz. — who also served as an assistant LAPD chief — knocked the more conservative longtime Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey out of office.
And there is widespread support for those changes, which are similar to measures in several other district attorney's offices around the country. This is seen as a corrective course change after decades in which tough prosecution disproportionately filled courts, jails and prisons with people of color.
But the critics are many, and although Gascón’s team has characterized them as a fringe right-wing movement, the coalition against him is broader than that, and it includes victims of crime and many of his own prosecutors.
Tim Lineberger, a spokesman for the recall, is an Orange County resident who worked as Michigan communications director for former President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Lineberger told me the second recall effort has raised twice as much money as the first, and among the Democrats involved is former prosecutor Kathleen Cady. She worked in the L.A. County district attorney's office for 30 years and now represents crime victims opposed to Gascón’s reforms.
“In the last year, I’ve represented about 90 murder victim families and … I’m hearing their stories about how they feel totally abandoned,” Cady said.
She said without sentencing enhancements for things such as gang violence and great bodily harm, defendants who in the past were sentenced to death or life without possibility of parole are being sentenced instead to 25 years in prison, “which means that in 20 years they’re eligible for parole.”
Desiree Andrade — who, like Cady, is a Democrat and a co-chair of the second recall effort — told me the horrific details of her 20-year-old son Julian’s beating death in 2018 and said she doesn’t trust that under Gascón justice will be done.
Andrade told me she supports criminal justice reforms for low-level crimes, but she thinks Gascón has been soft on those who commit brutal violence.
“In what way is this reform?” she asked. “We’re living exactly what I feared, which is that … criminals have been sent a message that the D.A.’s office is not going to prosecute many crimes, so go ahead and do whatever you want.”
Andrade and other critics have legitimate perspectives, no doubt. But recalls often come off as nothing more than attempts to reverse the will of voters. I asked Cady if Gascón isn’t simply doing exactly what he promised to do as a candidate.
“What he said” when campaigning “was a lot more nuanced,” Cady said. “But his policies are not nuanced. They’re blanket policies, and that’s what people are so outraged about. He’s essentially saying he’s not going to even look at individual facts or defendants.”
Cady said she thinks there’s room for reforms involving more diversion and rehabilitation, but such resources aren’t yet available in many instances.
Adding to critics’ arsenal of complaints was a story by Times staffer James Queally about the possibility of what some consider a light sentence in the case of a 26-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl. And before I met with Gascón, news about the killing of a 24-year-old college student working at a Hancock Park furniture store added to fears of rampant crime. As did the case of a 16-year-old girl whose body was dumped near the Harbor Freeway in South L.A.
Gascón expressed his condolences for crime victims and their loved ones. He told me he couldn’t discuss pending cases in detail, but he defended his policies, which evolved over many years.
Born in Cuba, Gascón lived with his immigrant parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Cudahy. As a cop, he said, he “drank the Kool-Aid” and was a law-and-order guy. But the focus, he said, was on poor people of color, whose paths were influenced by the many forces they were up against. He began questioning the effectiveness of stiffer penalties, longer sentences and punishment without rehabilitation in overcrowded prisons.
“The investment on prisons is not a good one,” Gascón said, arguing that this doesn’t mean some people don't deserve to be locked up. But as the country became more punitive, he said, recidivism rates often rose.
“Reforming the criminal justice system and public safety are not one against the other," Gascón said. "In fact, I would argue that many of the problems we have today” are the price we pay for “really bad policies around incarceration, policing and prosecution for many years.”
As for recent crime stats in Los Angeles, they’re not up across the board. In the city of L.A., property crimes, robberies and burglaries have been down compared with 2019. The county has seen decreases in robberies and burglaries and a rise in property crime. In both the city and county, homicides have gone way up.
But statewide criminal justice reforms, the coronavirus and its impact on the economy are all arguably factors. And Gascón said national crime rates tell a story.
“Homicide rates have gone up nationwide,” he said, and California’s reforms can’t be responsible for rising crime in, say, Texas or Arizona. Nationally, murder rates spiked 27% in 2020 and jumped again last year.
Gascón also argued that in California, counties with more conservative prosecutors — including Fresno and Sacramento — have seen dramatic increases in homicides. Some have tied statewide crime increases to legislative reforms, but Gascón makes a fair point in questioning connections between his policies and crime rates.
I do wonder how much can be accomplished through criminal justice reform without more rehabilitative services in place, and without greater emphasis on the societal failures that drive crime rates in the first place.
But Gascón said too many candidates, once elected, don’t follow through on promises. He’s staying the course, he told me, evaluating and adapting as he moves forward.
The people who want him gone are equally committed, so stay tuned.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.