Gascón backtracks on life without parole, trying juveniles as adults

Politics and government

In a series of Friday afternoon memos sent out to his office staff, L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón rolled back a handful of his previous directives, including those regarding life without parole and trying violent juveniles in adult court.  

The move from the county’s top prosecutor is a backslide on policies that had initially been met with criticism from multiple figures throughout the county and state, including officials from the Santa Clarita Valley.  

In an adjustment to the directives he put in place upon entering office in December 2020, Gascón states he remains committed to his principles aimed at reducing incarceration, but that upon further review, he and his staff decided to adjust their policies as it pertains, in the most egregious of circumstances, to life without parole and how juveniles should be tried in the eyes of the law.  

“One of these underlying principles is to constantly refine what we are doing so that we can continue to enhance public safety in a thoughtful manner,” Alex Bastian, special advisor to  Gascón, said in a statement sent to The Signal on Friday. “That is what the DA has always done, and what he will continue to do. We are now more than one year into his term, he has listened to community members, victims and colleagues.” 

On Friday, longtime critics of Gascón, while expressing their support for his backtrack on some of his policies, said that the changes may have come a little too late.  

“He has heard the polls, he has seen the public safety crisis in L.A., and he knows he’s in trouble with all Angelenos,” said Jon Hatami, a deputy district attorney in Gascón’s own office, in reference to a recently announced second recall attempt of the district attorney. “Actions always speak louder than words.” 

“The DA’s newly issued juvenile justice directive is a step in the right direction, one that is clearer about seeking accountability for egregious acts of crime,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger told The Signal on Friday. “But, some victims’ rights groups may be inclined to say ‘too little, too late.’”  

“I find it hard to disagree with them,” Barger added.  

The memos from the DA essentially create a number of committees and bodies that will analyze and review cases in both adult and juvenile courts.  

For the adult court system, the Alternate Charging Evaluation Committee, or ACE, will be made up of a handful of individuals within the justice system, and when prosecutors and their chain of command are all in agreement that an exception is warranted, a special circumstance allegation will be considered.  

A special circumstance allegation is a way in which prosecutors — depending on the case and the egregiousness of the alleged act — can ask judges for additional sentencing years on top of the base charges.  

“(Deputy district attorneys, or) DDAs and head deputies are reminded that approval to file special circumstance allegations will only be granted in extraordinary situations where it is abundantly clear the defendant is beyond any means of rehabilitation and the crime perpetrated is deserving of this extreme penalty,” reads the memos.  

While Gascón’s memo does not change his stance on completely eliminating the death penalty in L.A. County cases, Bastian said Friday that life without possibility of parole is now a possible sentence in some cases.  

“This office is committed to never seeking the death penalty, eliminating mass incarceration, and fostering rehabilitation for those charged with crimes,” reads one of the memos. “However, after listening to the community, victims and colleagues, I understand there may be the rare occasion where the filing of special circumstance allegations may be necessary.” 

“In cases where it is deemed such filings are appropriate, the office will seek a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole,” the memos add. 

In addition to creating ACE, the memos also created the Juvenile Alternative Charging Evaluation Committee, or JACE. This committee, upon a Juvenile Division DDA’s transfer request, will review cases that could be taken from the juvenile court to adult court.  

“The selective transfers of juveniles to the adult court system will only be in the most egregious cases that warrant a state prison commitment, where it is abundantly clear the minor poses a danger to the public and has serious difficulty controlling their dangerous behavior in line with the evaluation for extended Secure Youth Treatment Facility detention,” reads one of the memos.  

One of the final committees created, the Youth Justice Committee, or YJC, shall be in charge of ensuring individualized reviews and dispositions in juvenile cases; as well as identifying key legislation and partners in continuing the development of the county’s division of Department of Juvenile Justice.  

“We will stay true to our guiding principles and will continue to evaluate the work that we do to ensure that we are constantly evolving to further advance public safety,” Bastian said.  

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