LA District Attorney George Gascón came into office in December with big, progressive plans. He promised voters he’d tackle criminal justice reform by fighting crime with more mercy and less jailing.
“We've started fulfilling many of the campaign promises, but change never comes easy,” Gascón tells KCRW.
During his first day, he announced prosecutors in his office would no longer be allowed to seek most sentence enhancements.
“These enhancements have never been uniformly applied, meaning that prosecutors in this office, as well as other offices around the state, often pick and choose when they're going to use this,” he says.
That announcement sparked major pushback from his own employees, including a lawsuit and a recall campaign. The union representing LA County deputy district attorneys says his sentence enhancement prohibition violates California’s three strikes law, which requires prosecutors to seek longer sentences for defendants with previous convictions.
The union wants there to be case-by-case discretion for LA deputy DAs when it comes to seeking enhancements. “What we’re asking basically is that the DA follow the law,” says Eric Siddall, the Vice President of the LA Association of Deputy District Attorneys. “And that while we recognize, and I think all courts recognize, all parties recognize, that there is wide discretion [for the DA], there are certain things a DA must do, and this is one of those laws that he must follow.”
But Gascón stands by the legality of his decision. “It is clear that the law gives wide berth and a great deal of discretion to the elected prosecutor,” he says.
Even with a contentious lawsuit going on, Siddall says that the deputy DAs are committed to doing their jobs. “We’re not really contesting the issue of his reforms. He wrote over 60 pages of directives, and our lawsuit probably aims at two pages of those directives.”
“So we’re not contesting his ability to implement reforms that he was elected upon, that’s not the issue,” says Siddall. “The issue is that there is also the rule of law. And one of the reasons we have civil service protections as prosecutors is to make sure that we don’t function as a political office, that we function purely as a public prosecutor. … The law that [Gascón] wants to ignore is a law that was passed by the people of the state of California on multiple occasions, all the voters.”
Gascón says he is prepared for a recall campaign if it comes, and believes he will win with the support of LA’s voters. “The majority of the people in LA County are not prepared to go back to the bad old days.”