LA DA George Gascón on cash bail elimination, gang sentencing, and reviewing officers’ use of force

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

George Gascón at an election night party on March 3, 2020. He tells KCRW today, “There are some people that will continue to oppose reform as they have for many years. They have questions, but they're looking for answers too, and they will work with us. This is going to be an evolution. It's not going to happen overnight." Photo by Angel De Leon.

George Gascón was sworn in on Monday as LA’s new district attorney. He announced big reforms, including no more cash bail for nonviolent crimes. He won’t seek the death penalty. Juveniles will no longer be charged as adults for some crimes. He’s barring prosecutors from seeking enhanced sentencing for gang members. And he promises to review thousands of cases to see if there should be lighter sentences, or if some of the prisoners should be released. 

He’s doing all this as violent crime is increasing in LA. For the first time in more than a decade, there have been more than 300 murders this year.

Gascón tells KCRW that he sees the increase in violent crime both in LA and worldwide, so he’s moving to change the way law enforcement treats crime. 

“We have created a system in the last several decades, where our failure rate is somewhere between 60-70%, meaning that the people that we touch never get better. In fact, they get worse. We start criminalizing people at very early ages. … We have a system that is failing us socially and economically, and it's not making us any safer.”

Despite the rampant changes Gascón has implemented, he says there are many in his office who support the reforms, and the majority of people in policing are there because they want to do the right thing. 

“Cultural shift takes time. Change is something that doesn't occur easily. And there is no question that there are some people that will continue to oppose reform as they have for many years,” Gascón says. “They have questions, but they're looking for answers too, and they will work with us. This is going to be an evolution. It's not going to happen overnight.”

What new policy reforms mean for LA County

In directing district attorneys to not file charges against quality of life crimes like public urinating, drinking in public, and trespassing, Gascón says his office is not looking the other way or ignoring the crimes. He’s building what he hopes is a long-standing solution to help stop crime. 

“We are creating alternative intervention. What we're saying is locking up somebody for two or three days for this offense never gets us anywhere. All you're doing is you're recycling people in and out. …  The underlying problems continue to exist. … Let's get this person into the type of intervention that is going to stop them from continuing to harm the community and harm themself.” 

Gascón says that by not seeking bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, he’s trying to even the playing field between offenders. He also notes that money should not be a proxy for whether offenders can escape jail time — because access to money is not an effective way to gauge whether someone is dangerous. 

“There are people that can afford to pay bail and they go out and they harm others. And there are people who stay in jail because they do not have the money to get out,” Gascón says. “We're actually creating downstream consequences to a family. Sometimes we're taking the breadwinner away [who] cannot defend themselves properly [and] they often plead to agreements and deals that are more excessive than they would if they went to trial.’”

In ending enhanced sentencing for gang members, Gascón aims to stop discriminatory practices. He references cases from earlier this year, where LAPD officers were alleged to have falsely labeled individuals as gang members. 

“They were targeting young Latinos. So we know that a lot of these enhancements have been discredited. They’re used in a very discriminatory way. And they multiply the time period of incarceration without any connection to public safety.”

Gascón plans to review cases through a team of external investigators who will decide whether people can be resentenced or released depending on their circumstances. He says they will prioritize cases by those who are low risk, such as those who are elderly, have shown they have been rehabilitated, are vulnerable to COVID, or have been in prison since their teenage years. 

“We're going to be very careful to ensure that the people that are being released are not posing a threat to anyone, that are people that are costing us billions of dollars to maintain them in prison,” Gascón says.

Reviewing the use of force in LA County 

Gascón says that 99% of the time, police officers do what they’re supposed to do under the rule of law. However, he notes there are cases from as far back as 2012 where the use of force needs to be addressed. His office will launch a Use of Force Review Board. With the help of the UC Irvine School of Law, the board will include civil rights lawyers, constitutional experts, and community members. So far, four cases will be reviewed.

“This is a county that has incarcerated a lot of people. … Police have used a lot of force. So it's going to take a while for this. It took a long time to get here. So it will take time to make sure that we unwind those practices.”

He says the team will only revisit cases where they have a good faith belief they will win the case. That includes finding that a law has been violated and where there was sufficient, admissible evidence. 

He makes clear that everyone should be held accountable if they’ve committed a crime. He admits, however, that due to the nature of police work, use of force does apply differently to law enforcement.  

“Police officers are asked to go into situations that are often dangerous, and they have not only a right to defend themselves, but they have a right to defend the rest of us.”

He says that in revisiting these cases, he will follow the rule of law. 

“We would follow the law to the maximum consequences of what that allows. … We will follow the law just like we are going to do with non-police officers, we’ll do with police officers.”