Summary: In the first four months of 2021, the District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges on 537 Santa Clarita Valley criminal cases — already 156% of the total number of declined cases for the entire previous year. If the trend holds for the rest of the year, it will represent a 369% increase in rejected cases. Of those rejected cases, 60% are the result of new policy directives by L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón, fueling concerns among some government leaders that Gascón’s plan to reform the system is threatening public safety.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies had already arrested 25-year-old Alfredo Alvarez, of Newhall, 11 times in the previous 12 months, before he was accused of helping someone he’d just met outside of jail with another allegation. According to witnesses, Alvarez was a lookout as his alleged accomplice pulled a knife on two diners and demanded their cellphones in front of the county’s oldest restaurant, the Saugus Cafe, at around 3:30 p.m. March 1.
He will face no criminal charges for his 12th arrest, making him one of 537 criminal suspects arrested in the Santa Clarita Valley through the first four months of 2021 whose cases were declined for prosecution by the office of District Attorney George Gascón. That’s already 156% of the total for the entire previous year, a trend that, if it continues, will result in a 369% increase in declined local cases for 2021 versus 2020.
Alvarez’s previous booking charges ranged from suspicion of drug possession to suspicion of obstructing a police officer likely to cause great bodily injury. The District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges in the robbery the following day, citing a lack of evidence against Alvarez, who was taken into custody in possession of one of the phones stolen and identified by one of the victims, according to witnesses and law enforcement officials.
Alvarez was released by March 3, only to be picked up again two days later by SCV deputies on suspicion he was in possession of methamphetamine and methamphetamine paraphernalia.
After his 13th arrest, Alvarez had a probation hold placed on his file, which means he’ll likely be in Men’s Central Jail until his upcoming July 9 hearing, according to court and Sheriff’s Department records available online.
Of those 537 local cases declined for prosecution in January through April, Sheriff’s Department data indicates 60% of the DA’s refusals are the result of new policies enacted by Gascón after he was elected last year — including directives that are aimed to eliminate bail, eliminate sentencing enhancements, and altogether ban prosecution of entire categories of crimes. The fallout from his policies has sparked a recall campaign and prompted “no-confidence” votes against Gascón from 17 cities — including Santa Clarita, which was the first.
City of Santa Clarita and law enforcement officials are citing the growing number of cases like the ones involving Alvarez as part of the concern in both eradicating bail and continuing Gascón’s new policy directives. Amid the discussion on criminal justice reform, a number of other cities appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether rising crime numbers will drop, while a growing number of cities have joined Santa Clarita in voting no confidence in Gascón, as the signature-gathering effort for his recall gains steam.
Countywide, the Sheriff’s Department is reporting an overall 5.77% increase in violent Part I crimes through four months of 2021 versus 2020, including a 127% increase in criminal homicide, 17.69% increase in rape and 16.8% increase in aggravated assault. Among violent crimes, the only category that’s down is robbery, which has dropped 22.4% compared to the same period last year. Overall Part I property crimes are up 5.87%, with grand theft auto accounting for the lion’s share of the increase, being up by 49.9%.
One of the issues taken with Gascón’s policy directives is that his “blanket-policy” approach to reform — which, in many cases, has left deputy district attorneys prevented by their own rules from seeking outcomes they see as fair — has crossed the line, letting criminals know they won’t be held accountable.
Within hours of Gascón being sworn in, the new policies took effect.
“Obviously, he’s going too far,” said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, referring to Gascón’s policy changes. Parris, who’s also a successful trial attorney at his eponymous law firm, said he might be more of a “progressive” Republican than some of his GOP colleagues, but he largely considers a drug problem to be a medical problem — until a crime is committed to support the addiction, and then it becomes a criminal problem. “I personally thought, you know, there certainly was some room for reforms, but you can’t leave … you can’t have a void where people are just totally unaccountable.”
Sentencing enhancements, a means by which prosecutors secure longer incarceration terms based on the circumstances of a crime, essentially were abandoned. A number of misdemeanor and felony charges are no longer being prosecuted. He’s sought to reduce and eliminate bail — the future of which is up for discussion regardless.
All of these efforts are what Gascón has described in policy statements as trying to address recidivism and the fact that “the consequences of a misdemeanor conviction are life-long and grave.”
However, local officials, concerned that the consequences for those accused of committing such crimes have, in many cases, become inadequate or nonexistent, asked sheriff’s officials to track the number of cases rejected and the number of cases rejected solely due to Gascón’s policy changes.
The Signal sought to collect data from the 10 largest cities in Los Angeles County to obtain the number of criminal case filings that have been rejected as a result of Gascón’s policies, as well as comparing them to the number of cases rejected for the previous two years.
(Due to a number of different factors cited, including a lack of resources and staff available due to COVID-19, and the large volume of data requested in some cases, the results received in response to The Signal’s California Public Records Act requests varied significantly, as reported below. The city of Los Angeles, notably the only city not to attempt to respond, closed the request with no data submitted, viewing the request as the creation of a record that did not exist, which represented an undue burden on staff resources. For all cities that responded to the request, comment was sought, with some agreeing to speak on the record. To date, Long Beach and Torrance have noted they plan to respond to a request that was received May 4, but have not turned over any data.)
Santa Clarita response
Locally, SCV Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez declined to comment on Gascón’s policies and directed inquiries to Sheriff Alex Villanueva. In recent weeks, Villanueva has become one of the more influential supporters of the recall effort against Gascón.
City Manager Ken Striplin and Mayor Bill Miranda have voiced repeated concerns heard from city residents about the increase in property crimes, while also continuing to share their campaigns for residents to keep their property more secure, such as the #9pmRoutine, which reminds people to lock up before bed, and Guard That Auto, which asks people to be careful about leaving out property and locking their vehicles.
Striplin lamented in January about how the consequences for committing a crime had “continued to be eroded” under Gascón’s policies, while cases like Alvarez’s continue to grow in regularity, alongside other recidivism numbers.
The number of repeat offenders has seen a rise that SCV Sheriff’s Station officials monitor daily. Data comparing March 2019 to April 2020 and then March 2020 to April 2021 saw repeat offenders go from 680 suspects accounting for 1,946 arrests, to 716 individuals accounting for 2,314 arrests.
While the number of arrests continues to rise, the number of cases that aren’t being prosecuted is also rising, which is one of the more alarming trends cited by those calling for more accountability. In the SCV, sheriff’s officials presented 310 cases that were declined for prosecution in 2019 and there were 343 cases declined in 2020. Both years’ tallies already have been eclipsed by the 537 SCV cases declined in January through April this year.
While Santa Clarita City Council members were the first to issue a vote of no-confidence in Gascón in response to concerns, they’ve been joined by (in alphabetical order): Arcadia, Azusa, Beverly Hills, Covina, Diamond Bar, La Mirada, Lancaster, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Pico Rivera, Redondo Beach, Rosemead, San Gabriel, Santa Fe Springs, Temple City and Whitter.
Glendale taking closer look
In Glendale, questions about the increased rates of recidivism have been brought to the City Council’s attention by residents, officers and the city’s top cop, according to one council member, who also recently asked for city staff to present a report on public safety data.
“It is a concern for us,” said Ara Najarian, a 16-year member of the Glendale City Council and lawyer who’s also served as a judge for the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. “We hear from our Police Department and our chief, that there are a lot of cases that they’re involved with, that prosecutions are declined, that the suspects are out on no-cash bail within a few hours of being booked, and that they’re, you know, that they are committing additional crimes.”
Najarian said the research was requested, in part, to review the information available on the crime rate and prosecution, or where it’s lacking, and see if there’s any way the city can increase accountability for repeat offenders, as well as reduce crime, even if it means taking matters into its own hands.
“Our intention at this point would be to — when we get the facts — to urge prosecution of crimes. You know property crimes, drug crimes, oftentimes are not even charged, (so) to urge prosecution of these crimes, and to, perhaps, beef up and enhance our city’s prosecutorial role with our City Attorney’s Office.”
Najarian praised Santa Clarita for its common-sense approach, and also noted that, much like how the election brought Gascón to office, shifting political winds can play a role in how the discussion is received. That’s why it was important for the Glendale City Council to evaluate the pending report and receive all the relevant information, before the council could consider a no-confidence vote in Gascón, supporting a recall or even taking additional action.
Najarian acknowledged that national protests concerning police behavior with incidents like the murder of George Floyd have complicated the conversation about reforming criminal justice and, surrounding some of these issues, there’s been “heightened scrutiny” from law enforcement critics.
The city was sensitive to not wanting to “inflame” those who seek to defund the police with its report, or seem as though the city was “targeting certain racial, ethnic or socioeconomic sectors of the city,” he added.
“So, you’ve got this whole sort of political flavor to it, as well,” he added. “You know we have to see how that goes … and I told the chief … before I go and start advocating for things like recall and developing our own city attorney department and urging the prosecution of crimes, I want to see the facts, and see what’s really going on. So that’s kind of where we’re at.”
Alternative approaches, changing priorities
Statistically speaking, Pomona saw one of the largest increases in cases that were considered a “decline to file” from the District Attorney’s Office.
The Pomona Police Department data — which provided the overall number of cases declined versus distinguishing the ones that were only declined due to policy — indicated the D.A.’s Office declined to prosecute 404 cases in all of 2019, 702 cases in all of 2020 and, in just the first four months of 2021, already had declined 1,164 cases.
This wasn’t necessarily a surprise for Pomona Councilman Victor Preciado, who shared a narrative that represented how the incarceration cycle was impacting his community, which he felt justified Gascón’s policy with respect to not prosecuting certain crimes.
Particularly, he said, “transitional age youth,” generally aged 18-24, are no longer afforded the protections of the law offered to minors, not quite prepared for adulthood but still liable for the grave consequences Gascón mentions in his policy statements on misdemeanor and juvenile prosecutions.
Preciado also noted that while only those 18 and under are traditionally viewed as youth, this growing segment of the population was increasingly becoming part of an incarceration cycle.
He used the example of a loitering charge that was requested by a shop owner upset at how a business was being disrupted by teens who were hanging out in front of his store.
Preciado said if police officers arrest the 19-year-old on a loitering charge and he didn’t have someplace else to go, then that teenager has now been entered into the criminal justice system perhaps because there were no alternatives, with a misdemeanor charge that would make even an entry-level position at a big box store difficult.
He also observed the city, at the time of the interview, was looking to open its first approved marijuana dispensary, so it would be in line with the city’s direction if, for example, 200 of those cases involved marijuana and were no longer being prosecuted.
He expressed hope for Pomona that city plans for a multi-agency juvenile program ultimately will receive more support from the county and the state in order for it to create impactful alternatives that are lacking.
“Some of (these transitionally aged youth) being unprepared, being left just kicked off to the streets …(through) foster care or … I saw a video on the ‘Faces of Homeless,’ and so there’s a youth out there getting kicked out because maybe they come out to their families as part of the LGBTQ community. It’s just been really impactful and really seeing different types of faces,” he said, “so that kids have an opportunity, and they don’t then go into crime (and) are not criminalized for things. And then we’re not causing a revolving door, right?”
Bail, reform and the recall
Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, one of Gascón’s most outspoken critics, recognized the potential for positive reforms, and noted that former District Attorney Jackie Lacey was working toward these changes before she was voted out in November.
Addressing the addiction aspect of the problem was crucial, as was creating support services for veterans who might be struggling, as well as other groups that might have mental health concerns, he said.
He agreed with what many cities also said, which is that there is a greater need for “diversion programs,” which are meant to offer alternatives to incarceration. He acknowledged the challenge that any D.A. might have in implementing policy changes that would also require a great deal of expensive programming to support.
A Santa Clarita resident, Hatami said he wanted prosecutors to be given some discretion to make calls on whether a crime should be prosecuted. Instead, many are limited in their ability to seek what he considered fair outcomes by Gascón’s “blanket policies.”
“You know, if somebody is addicted to drugs and then they’re actually hurting somebody, then that person needs to be prosecuted,” Hatami said. “If you commit violent conduct, if you rob somebody to get money to buy drugs, that’s a crime, you’re hurting somebody else. And so that’s where I draw the line.”
Bail reform is set to be debated by the Board of Supervisors in the near future, in response to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that noted a bail system based on whether a person can afford bail is unconstitutional. California voters voiced their position on bail in the November election, rejecting Proposition 25, which would have abolished cash bail throughout the state. (Proposition 25 was opposed by 54.7% of L.A. County residents and 64.2% of the 38th Assembly District, which is most of the city of Santa Clarita.)
The county supervisors asked staff to look at alternative systems for the handling of suspects awaiting their hearing, which could involve a tiered system based on the nature of the crime. The court ruling and motion make it inevitable that change is still on the horizon for the future of those accused of crimes, but it remains to be seen what form that change will take.
The fate of the recall effort against Gascón is also uncertain.
The petition, which must be filed by Oct. 27, needs approximately 579,000 signatures. Santa Clarita is still the largest city to support the move, but it’s still too early to tell if the grassroots and the financial support necessary for the signatures exists. Since the effort began in earnest the first week of June, about 35,000 signatures have been collected, by both paid and volunteer sources, according to a source familiar with the campaign.
Parris, who said he’s yet to have a meeting with Gascón, despite the concerns he has shared openly, hopes there can be more reasonable discussion on reform, which is a more appropriate approach. He also worries that if the policies aren’t reined in, then the problems will continue to spiral, which cause another overcorrection, and erase any positive progress in the process.
“It’s gonna get a lot worse and then, what I’m afraid, what’s going to happen is, you’re going to see a reaction from the public that’s going to swing the pendulum the other way,” Parris said, “and the reforms that were necessary are going to get erased.”