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Los Angeles D.A. was voted into office on pledge to reform the system, but critics say he's going too far

Other top prosecutors in the U.S. who promised sweeping changes find themselves up against resistance similar to that facing George Gascón.
George Gascón speaks after being sworn in as Los Angeles County's district attorney on Dec 7.
George Gascón speaks after being sworn in as Los Angeles County's district attorney on Dec 7.Bryan Chan / AP file

LOS ANGELES — Less than three months after Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón was sworn in, victims advocates and members of law enforcement agencies gathered outside his office to demand his removal.

Their dissatisfaction led to an organized recall effort against Gascón, who ran on a progressive campaign to bring sweeping change to the country's largest prosecutor's office. But critics want him out, saying he prioritizes criminals over victims, making the county a less safe place to live.

As calls to reform the criminal justice system grow louder across the country, Gascón's predicament exemplifies the difficulties district attorneys face in trying to heed those voices. Reform-minded district attorneys in San Francisco and Philadelphia are up against similar challenges as they try to introduce changes voters say they want, fueling tensions between tough-on-crime prosecutors and district attorneys looking to take a more holistic approach to law enforcement.

"Gascón said, 'I am the change candidate,' and voters still put him in office, to change policy," said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California. "When he changes the policy in the office, to have him then recalled for doing what he was elected to do would be perverse, and it will send a signal to future candidates."

Supporters of Gascón praise his commitment to quickly overhaul a system that has disproportionately affected people of color for generations and say he is a welcome change from the last district attorney, Jackie Lacey, who refused to prosecute police officers accused of using excessive force or who had killed civilians.

Even though she was the first Black person to head the district attorney's office, Lacey was the target of Black Lives Matter activists for nearly three years. She was embroiled in public feuds with the organization, and her husband was charged with pulling a gun on Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah.

"This is a very interesting turn of events, from hashtagging #JackieMustGo to hashtagging #StandWithGeorge," Abdullah said. "We're really encouraged by the strong stances he is taking."

Gascón unseated Lacey, a career prosecutor who rose through the ranks to also become the first woman to lead the office, in November and almost immediately started introducing reforms when he took office the following month.

Within his first 100 days, he issued a series of directives to reduce the use of sentencing enhancements and cash bail, to not seek the death penalty and to charge fewer juveniles as adults.

"The change has been remarkable," said Cristine Soto DeBerry, founder and executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a nonprofit association of progressive district attorneys.

"So much change needed to happen, and part of why he moved so quickly on the reforms was because L.A. has just been so far behind for so long on this effort," she said.

In a statement marking his first three months as the top prosecutor, Gascón, a Cuban-born former assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department, said his efforts "to transform a dated approach that creates more crime, victims and inequities are just beginning."

Gascón is not limiting his influence to the county. He and Assembly Member Miguel Santiago, a Democrat who represents Los Angeles, proposed legislation this month that would change how strikes against juveniles are counted in sentencing. It would prevent strikes committed by minors from being used against them later in adult proceedings, and it would allow people to petition courts for resentencing if their juvenile cases were used to enhance adult felony sentences.

While reform advocates praise Gascón's push to rethink the district attorney's office and the role of prosecutors within communities, some of his deputies view the sweeping changes as contrary to standing law.

Just weeks after Gascón issued his first directives, the union representing Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys filed a lawsuit claiming that some of the orders defy state law and force prosecutors to violate the oath they swore. The lawsuit centers on Gascón's directive to forgo sentencing enhancements, which are used to lengthen defendants' prison sentences under some circumstances, such as membership in gangs or having criminal histories.

Gascón's initial directive ordered more than 100 enhancements dropped, including one that elevated a hate crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. He eventually backpedaled and reinstated enhancements in cases involving children and people targeted because of their race, sexual orientation or disabilities, but not before his own deputies took him to court.

"He was directing us to violate the law," said Deputy District Attorney Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors. "Sentencing enhancements are an important tool to distinguish between the harm caused, the history of the perpetrator and the conduct in particular."

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant sided with the deputy district attorneys association and ruled in February that ending the use of sentencing enhancements in thousands of criminal cases violated California law. He wrote that the state's "three strikes" law requires prosecutors to "plead and prove" all previous violent or serious felony offenses and that strike offenses must be charged.

Gascón responded in a series of tweets, saying that on Election Day "more than 2 million people in Los Angeles County voted for a system of justice based on science and data, not fear and emotion."

"Nevertheless, I never had any illusions as to the difficulty and challenges associated with reforming a dated institution steeped in systemic racism," he wrote. "My directives are a product of the will of the people, including survivors of crime, and a substantial body of research that shows this modern approach will advance community safety."

Before becoming top prosecutor in Los Angeles, Gascón served as chief of police for the San Francisco Police Department and then district attorney of San Francisco. He was appointed to the post in 2011 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom after current Vice President Kamala Harris was elected attorney general.

Despite being a progressive prosecutor in a progressive city, Gascón left behind a complicated legacy. He frustrated police groups after lowering punishments for some nonviolent offenses, fueling criticism that San Francisco became more violent under his watch. When he resigned to seek office in L.A., San Francisco Mayor London Breed took a public swipe at Gascón, saying that in his successor she finally had “a partner who can make sure that people are held accountable for their actions.”

Current San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is also facing a recall effort over similar concerns about changes to how his office charges criminal offenses. He and Gascón are among a recent wave of reformers taking over district attorney's offices in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere throughout the country.

Armour, of USC, said the pushback should come as no surprise, considering the past three decades of criminal justice thinking has been rooted in "retribution, retaliation and revenge."

"A lot of prosecutors have their personal and professional identities wedded to that particular concept of justice," he said. "What we're seeing is a revolution, and with revolutions come old-guard resistance."

When Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia's district attorney in 2017, he encountered many of the same arguments Gascón is now facing. He was accused of prioritizing criminals over victims and became the top boogeyman of traditional law enforcement officials and their associations.

The Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police waged an almost immediate war against Krasner, a former civil rights lawyer, paying for billboards to disparage him and regularly accusing him of not supporting police officers.

Bill McSwain, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and resigned after President Joe Biden took office, engaged in a public feud with Krasner, even joking that criminals called Krasner "Uncle Larry" because of his reputation for not prosecuting certain low-level offenses.

Nearly four years later, the resistance to Gascón closely mirrors what Krasner had to contend with.

"The big picture is this: People want a reformer," Krasner said. "This is a broken system that is in desperate need of change."

But for some victims and survivors of crime, reform-minded district attorneys like Krasner and Gascón threaten the very idea of justice.

Desiree Andrade, an organizer with the Recall George Gascón campaign, lost her son in 2018 during a vicious drug deal gone wrong. Julian Andrade died after being beaten, stabbed and thrown off a cliff in Angeles National Forest, authorities have said.

All five men charged with murder in his death have pleaded not guilty. Several of the suspects were also charged with special circumstances, but those extra charges were dropped under a directive issued by Gascón in December. With the enhancements dismissed, the defendants could be eligible for parole in 20 to 30 years.

Andrade said when they learned about the possibility of reduced sentences during a court hearing, they smirked.

"This is about what is right and what is wrong, and this is wrong," she said. "These gentlemen will be out in their early 40s. My son will never be back."

Max Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón, said "there is no basis in the assertion that they'll be out when they're 40."

"Notably, the parole board lets out relatively few people," he said.

Andrade is among a handful of recall supporters who jumped into the campaign against Gascón almost immediately after he took office. Like others who want him out, Andrade said Gascón misled voters and is abusing the power of his office.

"My son was brutally murdered, and this is just a slap in the face," she said.