LOS ANGELES (CNS) — After being sworn in Monday as Los Angeles County's 43rd district attorney, George Gascón announced that his office would no longer pursue the death penalty, try juveniles as adults, seek cash bail for misdemeanor and non-serious, non-violent felonies, or add gang enhancements to criminal complaints.
"We will work to correct the injustices of the past," Gascón said. "This is how, in a state that led the way in 'tough on crime,' California can lead 'forgive now' and turn the tide of mass incarceration and start anew."
In addition to working to resentence prisoners on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Gascón said his office would reevaluate sentencings in thousands of cases that include gang and other enhancements. His prosecutors will no longer file gang or three-strike allegations and will dismiss those allegations on pending matters.
"Experts estimate that at least 20,000 people sentenced to prison from L.A. County are serving sentences far longer than they would receive under the charging policies I announced today," Gascón said, putting that total at one-fifth of the state's prison population.
"Punishment must be proportional and in the community's best interest," he said during remarks livestreamed after his swearing-in ceremony.
Gascón said he will prioritize individuals for resentencing who have already served excessive sentences, are convicted of non-violent crimes, are deemed low-risk for release, and those who are especially at risk for COVID-19.
While it's not clear how he plans to pay for such a massive undertaking, Gascón contends that the work will ultimately save taxpayers money.
"It will also save California taxpayers billions of dollars," Gascón said. "Billions of taxpayer resources that can be put back into our communities, into public health, housing, and education — the solutions that actually enhance long-term health and safety for our community."
He said the process will include input from victims.
Anyone sentenced to prison as a child will also be on that priority list, Gascón said, after pledging that his prosecutors will no longer seek to try minors as adults, effective immediately.
Even more work is ahead for local prosecutors, as Gascón said attorneys for any defendant behind bars awaiting trial for a misdemeanor or non-serious, non-violent felony charge could immediately request a hearing to revisit bail. The new D.A. said his office would not contest such requests for release, which he anticipated would involve hundreds of people.
"Our system of money bail is as unsafe as it is unjust," Gascón said, "How much money you have in your bank account is a terrible proxy for dangerousness."
He promised that his office would also present a plan by January to eliminate cash bail.
"It will reinvigorate the presumption of innocence in L.A. County," he said.
Gascón's election marks the beginning of a new era after Jackie Lacey's eight-year tenure. He began his remarks talking about his first law enforcement job.
"It was 40 years ago that I walked my first beat as a young Los Angeles police officer. I still remember to this day the first day that I put a uniform on. I was so proud," Gascón recalled.
But over his career as an officer, he said he found himself arresting young men who looked familiar to him, because he had taken their father or uncle or brother into custody years earlier.
"How, with all the resources that we pour into arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating, how do we fail multiple generations of the same families?" Gascón said, noting that the "phenomenon was visited exclusively on these disadvantaged communities."
The answer, he said, is that "America is addicted to drugs" across racial lines, but "the painful truth is that the disadvantaged kids that get caught tend to go to juvenile hall, while kids in wealthier communities tend to go to rehab."
Putting kids in detention perpetuates a cycle that does not promote public safety, but increases the likelihood that they will commit more crimes, he said.
The new district attorney pointed again and again to racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
At one point, he asked his listeners to imagine their ideal safe neighborhood.
"I imagine that most of you will imagine a neighborhood with parks, playgrounds, and manicured lawns, with kids playing and after-school programs," Gascón said. "I don't believe that most of you imagine a neighborhood with a police officer on every corner. We know what safety looks like, but we don't offer it to every community equally."
The DA's office will no longer file first-time misdemeanor charges for quality-of-life offenses, will increase diversion programs, and will offer victims' services to families whose loved ones were killed in an officer- or deputy-involved shooting, no matter the circumstances.
"We will never get there with small incremental changes," Gascón said. "While my methods have changed, my law enforcement journey has always been the same. It's one about preventing crime, reducing recidivism, and restoring victims."
The Los Angeles Police Protective League contends that the D.A.'s moves will endanger the public and lead to rising crime.
"As homicides, shooting victims, and shots fired into occupied homes soar in Los Angeles, it's disturbing that Gascon's first act in office is to explore every avenue possible to release from jail those responsible for this bloodshed," an LAPPL statement reads. "The new DA talks a good game, but his plans will do nothing but further victimize Los Angeles residents, especially Black and Hispanic residents who currently make up 70% of violent crime victims. These victims and law-abiding residents lost a voice today while criminals and gang members gained an ally in the prosecutor's office. We sincerely hope Gascon realizes quickly that setting L.A. County on the same path he put San Francisco on will be disastrous."
The Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and Association of Deputy District Attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
However, in comments to the Los Angeles Times, one prosecutor expressed concern about a changing role.
"I think a lot of people are worried about becoming social workers when they've spent their lives being lawyers," one deputy district attorney told The Times. "A lot us are in the position that we're not just seeing a change in the administration, but we're seeing a change in the core function of what we've chosen as our career."
Another urged Gascón to move slowly on big issues like the death penalty and juvenile justice.
"Everyone is kind of taking a wait-and-see approach because there's going to be a lot of ramifications for unilaterally doing any big policy changes without doing a full review of all of those cases," the prosecutor said. "Some are easier to do than others."
Even before his swearing-in, Gascón had previewed his plan to work closely with community advocates.
"I was elected by the people and this community will have a seat at the table as we work to modernize our criminal justice system," Gascón said Nov. 18 in a written statement, as he announced his transition team. "Those that have been directly impacted by the work of this office have unique insights that are integral to an effective administration."
He noted that "our profession has largely missed the opportunity to learn from those that are justice-involved. We need to listen, grow, and take this opportunity to be better."
Gascón — a former LAPD assistant chief, one time Mesa, Arizona police chief, and San Francisco district attorney — positioned himself as a reformer in the race.
Lacey finished first in the three-candidate field in the March 3 primary with 48.7% of the vote to 28.2% for Gascón. A runoff was needed because no candidate received a majority.
In the time between the runoff and the general election, Lacey continued to come under heavy criticism from activists who wanted her to be more aggressive in prosecuting law enforcement officers involved in deadly shootings.
Gascón won the Nov. 3 election with 53.53% of the vote to Lacey's 46.47%.
His transition team includes only one current employee from the DA's office, Joseph Iniguez, who initially ran against Lacey for the post as the county's top prosecutor and then subsequently withdrew from the race and endorsed Gascón.
The balance of the team is composed of members of advocacy groups seeking to end cash bail, end the death penalty, and reform the juvenile justice system, among other progressive aims. It includes a man who was wrongfully convicted and others with "lived experience" with the criminal justice system.
The law enforcement relations team includes Kevin Jablonski, retired Los Angeles Police Department chief police psychologist; Rebecca Neusteter, a former director of research, policy, and planning for the New York Police Department; and Jacqueline A. Seabrooks, former Santa Monica Police Department chief who was recently asked by the city to serve as its interim police chief.