A 26-year-old woman who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in Palmdale might be sentenced to a short stay in juvenile hall or granted probation at a court hearing this month, sparking another round of outrage over Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s all-or-nothing criminal justice reform platform.
The complicated case of Hannah Tubbs has drawn increasing frustration from law enforcement officials and politicians in recent weeks, who say the situation once again highlights the problem with Gascón's blanket ban on trying juveniles as adults.
Tubbs, who identifies as female, was two weeks shy of her 18th birthday when prosecutors say she walked into the women's restroom of a Denny's restaurant in 2014, grabbed a 10-year-old girl by the throat and locked her in a stall, court records show. Tubbs then shoved her hand down the girl's pants and sexually assaulted her, prosecutors say, stopping only after someone else entered the restroom.
The case drew widespread attention at the time, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors issued a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. But Tubbs was not linked to the crime until 2019, when her DNA was entered into a database after she was arrested on suspicion of battery in Idaho, said Lt. Richard Ruiz of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's Special Victims Bureau.
Prosecutors filed charges against Tubbs in early 2020, shortly after Gascón took office. The reform-minded prosecutor has flatly refused to try juveniles as adults, citing scientific studies showing that adolescent brain development isn't complete until age 25 and asserting young offenders can still be rehabilitated in juvenile custody, while they would only be hardened in adult prisons.
But Tubbs' criminal record extends beyond the Denny's attack and into her adult life.
She has also been arrested for battery, drug possession and probation violations in Idaho and Washington, where she also has a pending misdemeanor case, Ruiz said. Tubbs was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in Kern County and faced a prior allegation of sexually assaulting a minor, which did not result in a prosecution, according to Ruiz and a review of court records. Several calls to the Kern County district attorney's office seeking additional information on both cases were not returned.
A final determination on Tubbs' case was supposed to be made earlier this month, but hearings have been delayed because the defendant is in quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure, Ruiz said. In the interim, proponents of a renewed effort to recall Gascón from office and area politicians have seized on the case as evidence that the district attorney's policies are harmful.
"It’s useless to catch criminals like [Tubbs] if we don’t follow through and seek justice for victims such as the 10-year-old girl [she] sexually assaulted. She bears the burden of a lifetime of trauma," L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Palmdale, said in a statement. "[She] will be offered therapeutic interventions under the auspices of ‘restorative justice’ ... and possibly granted only probation or parole. Where is the justice for [her] young victim and her family?"
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a frequent critic of Gascón, has also complained about the case online and had scheduled a news conference to discuss the matter this week with recall leaders and crime victims' organizations, but the event was canceled.
In an interview, Gascón said the case was complicated by the gap in time between the attack and Tubbs' capture, her criminal record and the impact the attack had on the victim. The young girl has since moved away from California and remains in therapy, according to an impact statement read in court last month, and Gascón said the victim did not want to testify at trial.
The Times also reviewed an e-mail that said Tubbs has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses and might also qualify as "developmentally disabled," factors that would raise legal questions about her culpability. One of Tubbs' public defenders declined to discuss the case, insisting they were barred from doing so by state law.
The district attorney also expressed concern that Tubbs herself would be victimized if placed in an adult facility as a transgender woman and noted a probation report actually recommended Tubbs be sentenced to home confinement. Instead, Gascón said, prosecutors asked for Tubbs to be kept in custody for two years where she could receive treatment and therapy.
Even then, the county's ability to house Tubbs has been called into question. At 26, Tubbs is too old to be legally held in a county juvenile detention facility. But in the three years since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his plans to dissolve the state Division of Juvenile Justice, which would normally house defendants in situations similar to Tubbs, the county has not put together a replacement program.
Under questioning at a hearing in Tubbs' case last month, a probation department official acknowledged there was no sex offender treatment program available in the current juvenile system, according to a court transcript reviewed by The Times.
Karla Tovar, a spokeswoman for the probation department, said the DJJ replacement where Tubbs would have to be housed — known as a Secure Youth Treatment Facility — does not have a permanent location and one will not exist without action from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
There are currently 14 juveniles who would have otherwise been assigned to DJJ in the probation department's custody who remain "housed in separate quarters and receive programming and services based on their needs. All of the clients are taking high school or community college courses."
But Jerod Gunsberg, an attorney who often defends teens accused of violent crimes, said the youths in that style of housing are simply being warehoused at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.
"There’s no programming," he said. "There’s no rehabilitative programs that are any different than what the probation department delivers in juvenile hall pre-trial, which is minimal.”
Due to the shortcomings of the probation department's setup, the Sheriff's Department has offered to house Tubbs in an adult county facility, Ruiz said. The legality of that compromise, which Gascón referred to as a "Band-Aid" specific to this case, will be decided by a judge later this month.
Still, many believe Gascón's handling of the case is the larger problem. Jon Hatami, a longtime prosecutor of crimes against children who has emerged as a leading voice of the recall movement, said charges clearly should have been brought in adult court.
“This clearly shows you the dangerous aspect of the blanket policies of George Gascón," he said. "Here you have a person who has committed at least two separate sexual assaults of young girls who is now 26 years old and has a history of violent conduct in the past. This is not somebody who should appear in the juvenile system."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.