In his first year as the county’s top prosecutor in Los Angeles County, District Attorney George Gascón has declined nearly two-thirds of all criminal cases presented to him by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.
Gascón’s total percentage of declined SCV Sheriff’s Station cases in 2021 outpaced his predecessor, former District Attorney Jackie Lacey, by more than double.
In the last year, Gascón saw 4,180 SCV case reports presented to his office, of which 2,621 were declined, or approximately 62.7%. In 2020, Lacey’s last year in office, the district attorney’s office declined to file 1,245 of the 4,462 reports presented by the SCV Sheriff’s Station, or 27.9%.
Between 2008 and 2012, before Lacey succeeded him, former District Attorney Steve Cooley declined 27.4% of all local criminal reports; Lacey would decline approximately 25% of all reports presented to her office by the local station between 2013 and 2020.
The release of the information follows a handful of California Public Records Act requests submitted to the D.A.’s office by The Signal, and reveals that Gascón declined nearly double the number of SCV Sheriff’s Station cases than his predecessors in any given year over the past decade.
Lacey’s second full year in office in 2014 appeared to be her highest in terms of filed versus declined proportionally to one another, with her office declining 32.5% of reports presented to her by SCV law enforcement.
These latest numbers pertaining specifically to the Santa Clarita Valley have drawn the ire of a number of local officials, who have for months contended that the D.A.’s policies on addiction, sentencing enhancements and cash bail have harmed public safety.
“These statistics show not only the intentional unwillingness of the D.A. to do the job of his office and prosecute criminals who harm our community and its residents, but the pressing and immediate need to see him recalled from office to ensure victims can once again count on justice to be sought,” Santa Clarita Mayor Pro Tem Jason Gibbs told The Signal. “D.A. Gascón is sacrificing the safety and well-being of our community, and furthering the harm innocent victims endure simply to invoke a delusional fantasy that imagines criminals as the real victims of their own actions.”
Councilwoman Marsha McLean joined Gibbs in criticizing the district attorney upon hearing the numbers — calling them “shocking” — and cited the city having already approved a vote of no confidence in the D.A. last year.
“No matter what side of the aisle you’re on — it doesn’t matter if you’re a school or business, a resident or community member — the most important thing in a community is public safety,” said Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez in response to hearing the numbers procured by The Signal.
“The amount of D.A. rejects and D.A. no-files due to the new directives are concerning,” said Diez. “They result in a significant number of repeat offenders that are growing exponentially every month in Santa Clarita because of these people.”
Although SCV crime has seen a 30% overall decrease since 2016, the city of Santa Clarita reported an approximate 3% rise in Part 1 crimes — crimes involving criminal homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, grand theft auto and arson — between 2020 and 2021.
In L.A. County, the process for a criminal case going to trial generally begins when the arresting law enforcement agency — in local cases it’s generally the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station — cites or arrests someone and writes a report summarizing the events, witnesses and relevant information.
It is then upon the prosecutor — in local cases it’s generally a deputy district attorney at the Los Angeles County D.A.’s Office — to decide whether to file charges and, if so, what charges to file. The prosecutor also makes the decision on whether to charge the defendant with misdemeanors or felonies.
The relatively higher number of cases declined by the District Attorney’s Office, according to a special advisor in his office, Alex Bastian, is largely connected to the D.A.’s belief that addiction-related offenses should be handled with treatment as opposed to disproportionate punishment.
“The vast majority of those cases … which is the additional 1,300 or so declinations [between 2020 to 2021] involve one of four charges,” said Bastian. “They either involve possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use — there are two different charges there that can be applicable — there is possession of drug paraphernalia and then there’s public intoxication.”
On Monday, Bastian said these four charges made up “well over 1,000” of the cases splitting the difference between 2020 and 2021. However, The Signal’s follow-up email, phone calls and text messages requesting the exact numbers and breakdown of the cases were left unanswered as of the publication of this story.
“The district attorney has indicated that addressing the root causes of substance abuse would actually get a better outcome,” said Bastian. “And as such, those cases have been declined in very different ways and at very different rates than in years past.”
Outside of these four crimes that deal with addiction, Bastian said that the District Attorney’s Year in Review report published for 2021 shows that felony cases in 2021 for all of L.A. County were charged at a 51% rate and that the 2019 rate — the last full year before COVID-19 — was 56%.
“Public safety is the overriding priority of the office as shown by the almost identical rate in which felony cases were filed in Los Angeles County over the past three years,” reads the report, later adding: “Despite a drop in the overall number of misdemeanor cases filed in 2021, the filing rate for misdemeanor crimes not associated with addiction also has remained consistent over the past three years.”
Bastian said the idea behind the new filing policies is to encourage those who see their cases declined — if they fall within these four groups — to take drug and mental health courses, or take the opportunity to work with one of the county’s service providers to address the primary catalyst for their infraction.
The special advisor added that scientific evidence shows that by taking this approach, the district attorney is not only being cost-effective for the county — reducing the chance of the person being incarcerated on the taxpayers’ dime — but also improving public safety by lowering the chance of future criminal behavior.
“I think sometimes what people forget is that the way things were occurring in the past, and the way people kind of react to things, doesn’t always get the desired outcome,” said Bastian. “And that’s why we need to do things in a way that’s thoughtful, (measured) and holds people accountable, but also prevents future crime.”
However, while Bastian and the district attorney’s end of year report claims the numbers and science are on their side, critics from various strata in the government have come forward to voice their skepticism of Gascón’s policies and his commitment to public safety.
“The high percentage of cases declined by the District Attorney’s Office is eye-opening yet not surprising,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger in a statement sent to The Signal on Monday. “He’s been clear about his soft-on-non-violent-crime approach.
“I’m curious to know what kind of follow-through has actually taken place to provide rehabilitative services for those whose cases were denied – what is the corresponding percentage or data for that?” Barger added. “Otherwise, the DA’s approach falls down like a house of cards.”
Bastian said that the district attorney’s policies are geared toward creating “gradual and proportional” responses to offenders, and said that a defendant whose case is declined being forced into a service provider rehab or program is not generally required on the first infraction.
“However, what occurs is that a lot of these charges do in fact have recurring incidents,” said Bastian. “There is the exception that we will mandate or we will take a different approach when appropriate.”
Multiple attempts by The Signal asking the District Attorney’s Office to procure the number of defendants who saw their addiction-related cases declined by the District Attorney’s Office and had voluntarily or been ordered to enroll in treatment or alternative programs were left unanswered, as of the publication of this story.
Diez, the SCV Sheriff’s Station captain, disputed that the D.A.’s office was court mandating any type of rehabilitation services for offenders, whether that be for drugs, alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence, anger management, etc.
“Not only are we not going to incarcerate you, we’re not going to even rehabilitate you through the court,” Diez said. “So, now we have nothing; you’re out on your own where we used to have incarceration and rehabilitation.”
Echoing the sentiments expressed by the SCV’s top cop, Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, a longtime critic of the district attorney and Santa Clarita resident, said that not only is the rejection rate high locally, but also that the Sheriff’s Department as a whole had seen more than 12,000 cases rejected in 2021 due exclusively to Gascón’s policies.
“Do not believe Gascón’s ‘first year’ ‘data and science,’” Hatami told The Signal. “It’s not true. His math is as bad as his policies: flawed.”
Hatami went on to say that he considers addiction to be a disease, and agreed with the district attorney that people who suffer from substance abuse need help and treatment. But sometimes, he said, that requires “tough love.”
“Any experienced (deputy DA)… knows that first a case must be filed; not blanket rejected,” said Hatami. “Then and only then can a person get enrolled in a treatment program monitored by the court.”
“Under Gascón, there’s no case, the person gets immediately released, there is no formal court-run program, only informal, the person doesn’t get better,” Hatami added. “And if the person commits a new crime, there is no case, no judge, no court and no punishment. Basically, no public safety.”
Last year, The Signal reported an analysis of local crime statistics showing that between March 17, 2020, and July 2021 there were 880 repeat offenders — people who have been arrested more than once during that same time frame — who made up 7,608 of the arrests made by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station. During that same time frame, there were five individuals who had been arrested 15 or more times, with two individuals each being arrested in the SCV 21 times.
“The overwhelming majority of the people we arrest are released within five or six hours with a citation or they’re simply released at their first court appearance,” Diez added.
Hatami’s workplace union, the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys, or ADDA, has also criticized the deputy district attorneys’ boss, with the organization’s approximately 800 prosecutors slated to vote on a vote of no confidence in the coming days.
“The explosion of misdemeanor rejects sends a clear message: George Gascón will not hold criminals accountable for quality-of-life crimes,” said ADDA President Eric Siddall in a statement sent to The Signal last week.
In spite of the criticism, Bastian asked residents, when viewing the numbers for the local community involving case declinations, to keep in mind Gascón’s past career — both as a law enforcement officer and prosecutor — as two of the many factors demonstrating his boss’ commitment to public safety.
“The best way to advance public safety is to make it so that we do all we can to make sure this person does not come back to the criminal legal system and does not continue to use the substances that are really plaguing this person’s life,” said Bastian. “And I think if you speak to people in this space, who deal with people that have substance abuse issues, they will tell you that you need to do something that’s thoughtful, measured and proportional to the incident at hand.”