The rethinking and reconstruction of the American criminal justice system has come in waves. A decade ago, unconscionable (and unconstitutional) prison crowding in California sparked smarter sentencing and parole, then alternatives to jail and prison, then the downgrading of drug possession felonies to the misdemeanors they once were and are now again, amid a continuing and historic decrease in crime. Four years ago, in a handful of jurisdictions around the nation, came the election of a new generation of prosecutors who seek not the toughest possible sentences, but a more effective, more equitable and more just criminal justice system. This May, with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, came the national recognition of the racial injustice that is built into American policing.
The next wave of reinvention may come from Los Angeles County, if voters here elect George Gascón as their district attorney.
Gascón is the right candidate at the right time in the largest local criminal justice jurisdiction in the United States. He brings with him the frontline experiences of a cop who saw the tough-on-crime ethic wreak havoc in the communities he policed, and is one of the few police leaders to question the old-style approach. As San Francisco's district attorney, he extended that reexamination to the entire criminal justice system. The Times endorsed Gascón for district attorney in the March 3 primary as the candidate most capable of bringing positive change, and we endorse him again in the runoff against two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey.
Opponents delight in calling Gascón a carpetbagger because he served as a police chief in Arizona and as chief and then D.A. in San Francisco before challenging Lacey. The charge is absurd. A young Gascón moved with his parents from Castro's Cuba to Southern California in the 1960s, grew up here, became an LAPD patrol officer in the 1970s after military service, left the department but returned in the 1980s in the thick of the tough-on-crime era. He rose through the ranks (while completing law school) and was instrumental in reinventing the Los Angeles Police Department following the Rampart scandal, in which officers framed suspects to cover their own crimes. He saw firsthand the depth of not just overzealous policing, but unlawful, destructive policing that victimized the very communities that the justice system was meant to protect. As assistant chief under William Bratton, he helped steer the department into a federal consent decree and managed the LAPD’s day-to-day operations.
He took his still-developing ideas about policing to Mesa, Ariz., where he served as chief, focused on repeat criminals to achieve reductions in crime, used data to zero in on the most egregious offenders and their likely victims, and formed a progressive counterpoint to the retrograde Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was known for his immigration posses and his desert tent cities for jail inmates. Gascón’s tenure in the politically conservative city won plaudits from across the political spectrum.
He returned to California as San Francisco police chief in 2009, and in that job he helped set the stage for the early wave of reform with his innovative ideas about policing, prosecution and alternatives to incarceration. As other jurisdictions (including Los Angeles County) fretted over “realignment” — a plan to reduce prison crowding by giving counties more control and flexibility over lower-level felons — Gascón was one of the thinkers who helped show other counties the way forward.
In 2011, he became San Francisco district attorney and a key figure in a movement that relied on modern tools and, above all, data to measure the effectiveness of prosecutorial policies. One example: the use of artificial intelligence to hide a suspect's race from prosecutors to eliminate unconscious bias in charging decisions.
Meanwhile, Lacey made history by becoming the first woman and the first African American district attorney elected in Los Angeles County. Her blueprint for diverting mentally ill defendants to treatment was welcome. But her implementation was slow. And her attitude toward reforms emanating from Gascón’s office and elsewhere in the state was disappointing.
She branded realignment “a terrible mistake.” When Gascón co-wrote Proposition 47 to return drug possession and petty theft to their former misdemeanor status, Lacey opposed it. When marijuana use was legalized and Gascón led in expunging prior convictions, Lacey was slow to follow suit. Where Gascón opposed the death penalty, Lacey’s department remains the state’s most prolific generator of death sentences. As Gascón helped lead the effort to raise standards for police use of force — allowing police to shoot only when necessary — Lacey lobbied hard for the older, lower standard. When Gascón fought against a law to deport nonviolent drug offenders, Lacey fought to keep it. When Gascón called for the State Bar of California to adopt a rule against district attorney candidates accepting donations from police unions, Lacey — who has benefited from the expenditures of millions of dollars in donations from police unions — opposed the move.
Lacey’s most vocal opponents zero in on her failure to prosecute police officers for killings, and indeed the dearth of prosecutions is noteworthy, especially in egregious cases such as the one in which LAPD Officer Clifford Proctor killed Brendon K. Glenn in 2015. Even Police Chief Charlie Beck, after seeing video evidence of the shooting, said his officer should be criminally charged. But Lacey declined, saying she could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Less discussed is her office’s absence from prosecutions of sheriff’s deputies who beat inmates and visitors at county jails, and alleged civic corruption of the sort that has resulted in indictments of and guilty pleas by Los Angeles city officials. Those were obtained by federal prosecutors, not the district attorney.
Lacey, to her credit, has used her position as the state’s most powerful prosecutor to lobby for improvement in some key areas of California’s criminal law, including legislation to curb the excesses of the state’s sex offender registry. Her efforts in that arena have been thoughtful and courageous.
But Los Angeles County needs so much more. It can be and should be the leader in policies and practices that improve public safety by reducing, not expanding, the footprint of the criminal justice system.
Gascón, if he wins, will have his hands full because the sprawling Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is notorious for its entrenched culture and its resistance to change. But he is the best person to lead that effort. The Times urges voters to choose Gascón.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.