George Gascon on why he should become LA’s top prosecutor

Across the U.S., there’s a movement to elect so-called progressive prosecutors. Los Angeles is part of that now. District Attorney Jackie Lacey is being challenged from the left by three men, two of whom are deputies in her office. 

The third is George Gascon, who left his job as San Francisco District Attorney to run for Lacey’s seat. He’s promising to reduce the prison population in L.A. and reform what he calls “discriminatory policing practices.”

Gascon was born in Cuba and spent much of his life in L.A. He also was in the U.S. Army for three years, worked for the LAPD for two decades, then became chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, where he got into disputes with Joe Arapaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff at the time. Later, he became the chief of police in San Francisco, then District Attorney.  

Where is Jackie Lacey failing, in his opinion? “L.A. is sending people to prison at four times the rate of San Francisco… We're both urban centers. We have similar problems… But here, we're sending people to prison at much higher levels. When you consider the economic cost of sending people to prison, which is huge, that's money that you're taking away from, you know, providing money for education, providing money for affordable housing, for infrastructure,” he says. 

He also points to L.A. having the most expensive county jail in the U.S. “You look at who is in that jail. You know, so many people who are mentally ill, so many people are going in for offenses that there has to be off ramps to that,” he says. “And I think that Jackie Lacey is a really nice lady, by the way. I like her on a personal level. I've known her for years. I think the office has gotten away from her.”

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and the police union both endorse Jackie Lacey. And many police officers say that one reason why there’s been more crime over the past few years is because of Prop 47, which Gascon co-authored. It was passed in 2014, reducing nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors. That included property crimes, fraud, and use of illegal drugs. Prop 47 also made some 10,000 prisoners eligible for parole. Critics have called it a “get out of jail free” program. 

Gascon says the Public Policy Institute and UCLA have done analyses of crime before and after Prop 47, and have recently concluded that Prop 47 didn’t cause a spike in crime. In fact, he says, Prop 47 “has reduced crime in some areas.” 

Another big issue in LA is homelessness, and many people who are living on the streets have cycled in and out of prison.

“I think that people have come to believe that everything has a prosecutorial solution, right? People are doing harm to others, absolutely, and there is a violation of some code. That's where the prosecutors come in. People being poor, living in the tent, being mentally ill on the streets -- it's not a solution that the criminal justice system is going to have good answers to,” Gascon says. 

He paints a scenario in which a mentally ill person is living in a tent in front of someone’s house. He says, “Can the prosecutor provide housing? The answer is no. Can the prosecutor provide mental health services? The answer is no. Right? Can the prosecutor provide any kind of social services there? And the answer is really no at the end of the day. And if we’re doing that, quite frankly, we're doing that at a higher cost than if we have mental health professionals and people that understand housing development doing those kind of work.”

But can the district attorney change any of that? “That is not the role of a prosecutor, and that’s the mistake,” he emphasizes. 

“We have a core decision actually in Boise, Idaho, that says if you're going to move somebody out of their tent, you have to have housing for them. And if you don't, you cannot arrest them for being there. Right? This is the stuff that people don’t like to talk about. We just want to hide the problem instead of face the fact that we're trying to use the wrong tools to deal with a problem that has other needs,” Gascon says.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy and Caleigh Wells