OAKLAND, Calif. — Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón ran on a vow to shake up America’s largest law enforcement jurisdiction. Sweeping progressive changes followed — and so has the California backlash.
Within weeks of taking office, Gascón instructed prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty and trying juveniles as adults. He ordered a halt to most cash bail requests and banned prosecutors from appearing at parole hearings. Most controversially, he barred prosecutors from seeking various sentencing enhancements.
Even if expected, Gascón’s moves have set off a political confrontation of unprecedented magnitude. Rank-and-file Los Angeles prosecutors have revolted and sought to block their new boss in court. District attorneys elsewhere in California have said they will not share cases with Gascón.
“You can’t just use the law to implement your personal worldview of what society should look like,” Association of Deputy District Attorneys Vice President Eric Siddall said. “The idea of one man coming in and saying, ‘You all are wrong, and this is what the law should be,’ is kind of counter to what our entire American system of justice is all about. It’s the antithesis of the rule of law.”
If Gascón’s win signaled the growing political viability of reform-minded prosecutors, the ensuing turbulence has illustrated the difficulty of transforming campaign pledges into action. His controversial decisions have divided California’s prosecutors: detractors see dangerous and potentially illegal overreach, while his supporters see a leader who is following through.
The widening battle offers a high-profile microcosm for larger tensions roiling law enforcement in California and around the country. The outcome will substantially impact Los Angeles and send a message to prosecutors everywhere. Once a pioneer in stringent penalties that drove an incarceration boom, Los Angeles is now the hub of a struggle over the course of criminal justice.
“He’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign,” transition spokesperson Max Szabo said. “There’s certainly backlash, but we can’t as a system of justice change course based on that backlash and ignore what the broader public has asked for.”
Gascón's election came after a year of racial justice activism, punctuated by protests in the streets of Los Angeles and incumbent Jackie Lacey's husband flashing a gun at Black Lives Matter activists outside the Lacey home. His victory in November was a watershed moment for a progressive prosecutors’ movement that has gathered strength around America. The former San Francisco district attorney ousted Lacey by running on a pledge to reduce incarceration and harsh sentencing, overcoming heavy law enforcement opposition in a race that drew national attention as a bellwether.
Prosecutors tasked with carrying out Gascón’s orders in Los Angeles courtrooms have fought back. Their association has gone to court to argue Gascón’s directives violate the law. Some dissenters object that Gascón has not tried cases in a courtroom and is issuing edicts that are disconnected from work on the ground.
Szabo rejected claims from opponents as “false fearmongering” from foes who have “taken it upon themselves to lie to the public to stoke fear and panic.” He likened them to climate change deniers.
“This is the first time that a district attorney in Los Angeles County is using data, science and research instead of fear and emotion to drive policy decisions,” Szabo said. “Enhancements have never been shown to enhance safety, but excessive sentences have been shown to exacerbate recidivism and therefore create more victims of crime in the future.”
Rank-and-file prosecutors have gained a powerful ally with the California District Attorneys Association publicly backing their challenge. It is not unusual for California’s 58 elected district attorneys to have differences of opinion, and Gascón has broken with his counterparts before, when he was the top prosecutor in San Francisco.
But it is extraordinary for the statewide association to so publicly repudiate a single member. El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson, who heads the statewide group from his more rural, conservative county, said the pushback was merited because Gascón has ordered subordinates to “violate the state constitution.”
“The policies that George has now implemented through these directives are far different from what he did when he was in San Francisco,” Pierson said. “What’s changed is that rather than behaving as though he is a prosecutor, George is essentially conducting himself as though he’s been anointed king of Los Angeles County criminal courts and as though he’s not bound by the two other branches of government.”
Meanwhile, San Diego’s prosecutor clawed back jurisdiction over a brutal robbery spree and double-murder case after Gascón’s sentencing restrictions limited the penalties the accused could face. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said in an interview that Gascón’s treatment of victims was “cruel,” and she said she would not grant joint jurisdiction on future cases “if I didn’t have an assurance from Mr. Gascón about respecting victims’ rights and following the law.”
“Those things are against the law but they’re also not productive criminal justice reform because at the end of the day you’re actually not holding the offender accountable, and you’re also damaging the community,” Stephan said of Gascón’s directives.
District attorneys representing Fresno and Sacramento have gone further, saying they will not share jurisdiction on any cases with Gascón. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert accused Gascón in an interview of seeking “omnipotent power over three branches of government” with “these sweeping directives, many of which are unconstitutional and illegal.”
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said in an interview that Gascón was imperiling people beyond Los Angeles areas because crime ripples from the enormous county to other areas of the state.
“LA is the big dog. The people who funded him and are interested in seeing his principles executed throughout the state of California were focused on Los Angeles,” Smittcamp said. “He’s more focused on the rights of the defendants than he is the rights of the victims,” she added, “and his quest for getting rid of what he sees to be mass incarceration is compromising the constitutional rights of victims.”
But Gascón’s allies see a different risk: the law enforcement establishment closing ranks to defy an elected prosecutor’s ability to carry out the will of voters. Dozens of prosecutor allies from around the country underscored those stakes in an amicus brief backing Gascón’s authority, noting “the issues this case raises have national significance.”
“I really think that it’s a dangerous precedent that we’re seeing here. I think it has the opportunity to undermine the authority of the elected prosecutor … to carry out the vision for his or her office that the people have elected him to carry out,” Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said. “Clearly what happens here could have ramifications around the country.”
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, one of only two other elected prosecutors who joined Gascón in backing a 2014 ballot initiative to reduce drug and property crime sentencing, has raised similar objections. Rosen warned in a letter to the state association that the group was setting itself against the voters of Los Angeles and making itself “needlessly vulnerable to unfounded attacks that CDAA is opposed to smart criminal justice reforms.”
“While I do not support many of Mr. Gascón’s new policies or the way he has sought to implement them, the voters of Los Angeles elected him to be their DA,” Rosen wrote. “If Mr. Gascón’s policies are not wise, the voters can recall him or not re-elect him. If his policies are illegal, the courts will reverse him.”
Local prosecutors are taking sides knowing they may find themselves campaigning for state attorney general next year, either as Gov. Gavin Newsom's appointee or as a challenger for the job. The state's top prosecutor role is soon to become vacant with Xavier Becerra joining the Biden administration as health and human services secretary.
Becton is among those being mentioned as a possible Newsom pick to replace Becerra. Schubert, meanwhile, is considered a serious 2022 challenger as a Republican-turned-independent whose office led the Golden State Killer cold case investigation.
The fissures between prosecutors already existed before Gascón took office as those promoting reform have collided with the old guard. Gascón and Becton have joined a new group, the Prosecutors Alliance, that was formed as a counterweight to the California District Attorneys Association.
Gascón and allies have sought to dilute the political power of police unions by barring them from contributing to prosecutors. That cause has gained national momentum and set California prosecutors against one another: San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a Gascon protégé, urged the State Bar last week to halt donations while Pierson, the state association’s leader, testified in opposition.
To Pierson and other critics of Gascón, that context shows Gascón is more interested in advancing a national movement than on tackling crimes in Los Angeles. Pierson bristled at the amicus brief signed by prominent reformist prosecutors like Cook County State's Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “When I hear and see the DA of Philadelphia or whatever it is interpreting California law in an amicus brief incorrectly and incorrectly stating the law, we have a problem with that,” he said.
But Gascón’s allies see the unified resistance as vindicating their quest to change the law enforcement landscape. San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Salazar said the California District Attorney’s Association was sending a “chilling message to every district attorney” that those who do not toe the line will “suffer our wrath.” Salazar is not a member of the association, and she said its decision exposes the hollowness of district attorneys proclaiming their support for reform while opposing Gascón’s directives.
“When it’s appropriate and they’re seeking funding, they’ll say they’re a progressive organization,” Salazar said, but “when push comes to shove, they rely on the old ways.”