On Dec. 7, 2020, George Gascón was sworn in as Los Angeles County District Attorney. In the more than 200 days since, Gascón has launched a series of special directives upending criminal prosecutions in Los Angeles County.
Gascón, never having tried a case in his career, decided to issue these special directives without any input from the vast number of prosecutors who have faithfully upheld the rule of law for their entire careers. These special directives sought to effectively abolish the Three Strikes Law by forcing prosecutors to not file or dismiss third strikes against some of the most violent or serious offenders in the system and took a shotgun approach to eliminating most sentencing enhancements on the books.
While Gascón may be motivated to rectify systemic racial imbalances against those perpetrating crimes, he forgot one of the central parties he swore to protect: the victims. The D.A.’s Office should be the victims’ champion in court since they, unlike the defendants, usually do not have their own lawyer promoting their interests. While Gascón has trumpeted data and academic studies about the racial disparities among those in custody, he ignores the real human victims — of all races and creed — whose lives have been decimated.
The uproar over his ill-planned policies affecting the most vulnerable victims was predictable. Victims of hate crimes, elder abuse, child and adult sexual abuse, and human sex trafficking could not believe that Gascón had just unilaterally struck down enhancements that the state Legislature had enacted to bring justice to these victims. Under Gascón’s original special directives, pedophiles and human sex traffickers were given more consideration than the victims whose lives they destroyed. Only under considerable pressure did Gascón buckle and reverse himself on these enhancements, without explaining why defendants who commit these crimes require different treatment than defendants who commit other violent or serious crimes.
With respect to Three Strike cases involving some of the most dangerous repeat violent offenders being prosecuted, Gascón turned down complaints from the association representing more than 850 of his deputy district attorneys that his Three Strike special directives explicitly violated the law and put those line prosecutors in danger of being held in contempt by courts. Gascón dismissed such concerns as simply those of disgruntled prosecutors who held on to “old school” views and stood in his fiery path of change.
Gascón’s self-righteousness continued even after the association filed a petition with the court to stop him from ordering his prosecutors to violate the law. Gascón was relying on the principle that district attorneys are given a tremendous amount of discretion to decide what cases to bring and what crimes to charge. However, that discretion is not unlimited. Gascón found that out the hard way when LA Superior Court Judge James Chalfant determined that significant parts of his special directives broke various laws, many of which have been on the books and affirmed by courts for over 25 years, and stopped him from carrying them out.
Undaunted by this judicial slap-down, Gascón has tried fervently to provide “Get Out of Jail Early” cards to as many criminals in Los Angeles as possible. He brags about saving those committing violent and serious crimes more than 8,000 years in jail because of his policies.
Given this troubling record, it is no wonder that more than 20 cities in the county have joined the effort that Santa Clarita initiated by passing the first “no confidence” resolution against Gascón. And more than 100,000 residents to date have signed the petition to recall him.
Prosecutors must do the hard and fact-intensive work of balancing the interests of the public, victims and criminals to achieve justice in each case as well as fairness overall. Gascón has tried to skip these steps since they do not fit nicely into his grand pronouncements about the injustices of the system. If Gascón wants to change criminal laws to enact his policy proscriptions, he should have run to be a state legislator, not a DA. As the head cop in Los Angeles, he more than anyone else should know that you can’t enforce the law by breaking it.
Nathan J. Hochman is a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General. He represented the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in their petition against DA George Gascón. He resides in Los Angeles.