New Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón Issues Major Reforms


Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón was sworn in last month.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced sweeping sentencing and death penalty reforms last month when he was sworn in to lead the nation’s largest district attorney’s office.

He immediately issued a special directive declaring that a “sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.”

Effective December 8, 2020, his office will not seek the death penalty or ask for an execution date in any case, will not defend existing death sentences, and will engage in a thorough review of every existing death penalty judgment from Los Angeles County with the goal of vacating the death sentence.

The reality is the death penalty does not make us safer, it is racist, it's morally untenable, it's irreversible and expensive and beginning today it's off the table in LA County.

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón

Los Angeles County historically has been one of the nation’s most prolific death penalty counties, Mr. Gascón wrote in the directive to prosecutors, and with people of color making up 85% of the 215 people sentenced to death in the county, “it exemplifies how racism infects death penalty proceedings.”

The district attorney laid out several reasons for this policy shift, including that “state sanctioned killings do not deter crime,” the death penalty is costly and takes funds away from programs that actually improve public safety, and retaining the death penalty when there is a significant risk that an innocent person will be executed is “intolerable.”

Mr. Gascón also implemented his promise to end the practice of trying juveniles as adults and outlined policies designed to keep children out of the juvenile justice system.

Recognizing that misdemeanor convictions disproportionately impact people in need of treatment and services for mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness, the district attorney’s office will stop prosecuting first-time offenders for nonviolent, low-level crimes under a new Misdemeanor Reform directive.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles County have also been directed not to file sentence enhancements or other sentencing allegations in most cases, including under the Three Strikes law. “Sentencing enhancements are a legacy of California’s ‘tough on crime’ era,” Mr.  Gascón observed, adding that current statutory ranges for criminal offenses are sufficient to hold people accountable and protect public safety.

Sentencing enhancements increasingly are being recognized as excessively punitive and prone to abuse, the Los Angeles Times reports. Recently, Los Angeles police officers were charged with falsely identifying people as gang members in a statewide database used to impose enhanced sentences.

The district attorney’s office will review thousands of cases in which people were sentenced under enhancements and other policies that have led to excessive sentencing.

“The vast majority of incarcerated people are members of groups long disadvantaged under earlier systems of justice: Black people, people of color, young people, people who suffer from mental illness, and people who are poor,” the district attorney explained.

The reviews could lead to reduced sentences and release for incarcerated people, many of whom have spent decades in prison or are serving ‘virtual life’ sentences.

“I recognize those are big changes,” Mr. Gascón said during his swearing-in ceremony. “But they are changes that will enable us to actually protect the truly vulnerable.”

A separate special directive also instructs prosecutors to ask the court to release individuals pretrial without bail, except for defendants charged with violent felonies.

“How much money you have in your bank account is a terrible proxy for how dangerous you are,” Mr. Gascón said. “Today there are hundreds of people languishing in jails, not because they represent a danger to our community but because they can’t afford to purchase their freedom.”

A former Los Angeles police officer, Mr. Gascón called for a Use of Force Review Board, made up of civil rights attorneys, members of the community, and policing experts, to investigate police killings going back to 2012 for possible prosecution. He has promised to reopen four police shooting cases that his predecessor declined to prosecute, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Families of people killed by police will also be able to access the services that the district attorney’s office provides to other crime victims.

Mr. Gascón’s victory over incumbent district attorney Jackie Lacey—criticized for being “overly punitive”—was seen as a repudiation by voters of more traditional, “tough on crime” policies, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“I recognize for many this is a new path,” Mr. Gascón said after taking the oath of office, “Whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me. I ask you to join me on this journey.”

“We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”