Bid to recall Los Angeles district attorney fails, a win for criminal justice reform

<span>Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A campaign to recall the progressive Los Angeles district attorney, George Gascón, did not get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and will not move forward, election officials announced on Monday.

The failure of the initiative to remove Gascón in the middle of his first term is a victory for criminal justice reform advocates and a major blow to police unions and conservative groups that have staunchly opposed efforts to reduce mass incarceration and hold officers accountable for misconduct.

The Los Angeles county registrar said it had determined that 195,783 signatures submitted by the recall campaign were invalid, and that the group needed 46,800 additional valid signatures to make the ballot. A total of 566,857 signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot.

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It was the second failed attempt to force a recall of Gascón, with an initial effort last year also failing to collect enough signatures. Gascón runs the largest prosecutor’s office in the US and was elected on a platform of championing criminal justice reform. The victory for Gascón in LA comes two months after voters in San Francisco ousted their progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin.

Gascón has become one of the most prominent DAs within a growing movement to elect prosecutors dedicated to reforming a criminal justice system that has made America a world leader in incarceration.

“Los Angeles’ criminal justice reform movement has prevailed because this is a community that prefers facts over misplaced fear,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, a group that supports reform, in a statement on Monday. “With another failed recall attempt behind us, we hope opponents to reform will look to the data, science and the future, instead of relying on ineffective models from the past.”

The recall campaign said in a statement that the results were “surprising and disappointing” and that it intends to “review the rejected signatures and verification process that took place and will ultimately seek to ensure no voter was disenfranchised”. Given that more than half a million voters backed the recall, “to interpret this in any other way other than a wholesale rejection of Gascon’s dangerous polices [sic] would be disingenuous, or naive at best”, the statement added.

Gascón tweeted, “Grateful to move forward from this attempted political power grab – rest assured LA county, the work hasn’t stopped. My primary focus has been & will always be keeping us safe & creating a more equitable justice system for all.”

A former police chief and DA in San Francisco, Gascón ousted the incumbent prosecutor in LA in 2020 vowing to oppose the death penalty, ending gang enhancements for sentencing, reopening cases of killings by police and ceasing to prosecute youth as adults.

The DA has touted his efforts to divert certain low-level offenses out of the system, “reduce excessive prison time”, and end cash bail for non-violent felonies so that defendants aren’t stuck in jail pre-trial because they can’t afford to pay high fees. He also filed rare criminal cases against police officers, including one officer charged with assault for shooting and injuring a man having a mental health crisis, and another charged with manslaughter for killing an unarmed man.

But Gascón has faced swift backlash from police groups, the LA county sheriff and conservative media, as well as from some Angelenos concerned with a rise in gun violence and killings during the pandemic.

Since taking office, the DA has faced intense scrutiny surrounding high-profile incidents, including the assault of a young girl and the murder of a prominent philanthropist.

Critics, including several law enforcement unions, have alleged that Gascón’s efforts to reduce harsh sentencing were enabling violence. There is no evidence his reform policies are causing a surge in violence, and his supporters and researchers have noted that California jurisdictions with traditional “tough on crime” punishments are seeing similar or worse upticks in crime. DAs generally have a limited impact on root causes of crime and are instead responsible for choosing which cases to file and what charges to prosecute. An LA Times analysis found that during his first year in office, Gascón filed felony cases at a nearly identical rate to his predecessor.

The vast majority of prosecutors in the office also voted in February to support the recall, according to the union representing the deputy DAs, which has strongly opposed Gascón.

The recall campaign had said it was “non-partisan”. But two conservative mega-donors accounted for nearly a quarter of the recall campaign’s publicly disclosed funding, according to an LA Times report in June, which also noted that the recall spokesperson formerly worked for the Trump campaign and Larry Elder, the rightwing radio host who ran against California’s democratic governor last year.

Anne Irwin, executive director of Smart Justice California, a group that advocates for reform, also praised the news of the failed recall in a statement on Monday, saying, “Fueled by Republican mega-donors, police unions, and others ideologically opposed to reform, the campaign followed a familiar pattern of using misinformation, fear-mongering, and the politicization of tragedies to scapegoat district attorney George Gascón ... Angelenos saw through these disingenuous tactics for a second time.”

Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor, said the failed recall was a “victory for democracy” and sent a signal that law enforcement groups will face an uphill battle if they continue to try to oust reform-minded officials. It also offered a counter to pundits who have argued that voters no longer support progressive candidates, he said : “This establishes that there’s no buyer’s remorse from voters who supported criminal justice reform. If anything, the Chesa Boudin recall is more the aberration than the pattern.”