The deputy district attorneys and advocates who work in the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office and provide victims’ families with updates regarding a suspect’s possible parole were informed Tuesday that their unit would be disbanded by the end of the year.
According to officials familiar with the decision, the dissolution of the victims’ advocacy team — known as the “Lifer Unit” — represents the latest in a series of changes to the L.A. County prosecutors’ office that began upon District Attorney George Gascón assuming office in December 2020.
In the past, the deputy district attorneys assigned to the Lifer Unit were tasked with assisting high-level crime victims and/or victims’ next of kin in appearing at parole hearings and relating victim impact statements, as well as the public safety interests of L.A. County, to the parole board. They are also tasked with keeping the victims up to date on any developments or upcoming hearings as it relates to their case’s particular inmate or parolee.
Since assuming office, Gascón has reportedly limited the amount of access that deputy district attorneys are allowed to have as it pertains to the events following an incarceration.
For instance, the decades-long responsibility for prosecutors to attend parole hearings to argue against early release was ended by Gascón, with he and his supporters justifying the decision by saying the practice results in unjustifiably long prison sentences. Prosecutors were told they could provide their arguments via a written statement.
However, in the latest update provided to The Signal on Tuesday, the Lifer Unit was informed that members of the leadership team in Gascón’s administration had deemed it “no longer appropriate” for the District Attorney’s Office to keep victims of crime — such as those who lost family members to murders and other violent acts — informed about the suspects’ possible parole and release.
Additionally, the unit, according to a memo obtained by The Signal, would work all their cases through October, but there would not be a November calendar of assignments, or any more moving forward.
The staff members on the team have reportedly been informed of the change and will be receiving new teams/units in the coming months. The Lifer Unit will continue to assist with referrals and providing assistance to their case victims through October.
The moves have drawn the ire of some deputy district attorneys who said the Lifer Unit’s presence at the hearings in the the past provided an important sense of safety and level of access to the system for victims and families that they advocate for.
“An elected DA must make sure the public is protected and the rights of victims and their families are honored,” said Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, a Santa Clarita resident and longtime resident of the Santa Clarita Valley. “Refusing to send a prosecutor to parole hearings, disbanding the lifer unit, and intentionally not informing family members of parole hearings is a complete failure to do the job of the district attorney.”
According to Hatami, many of the defendants the Lifer Unit prosecutors follow through the system have been sentenced to decades or even lifetimes in prison; but because of elder parole, youthful parole, and resentencing statutes, they can often be released before the end of their lives.
“The D.A.’s Office attempts to concede on Habeas petitions, (so) the defendants have been given a parole date,” said Hatami. “Murder victims’ families and other victims, including sex crimes victims, who hadn’t registered because they thought this day would never come, will not be notified unless the DA’s office assists with that notification.”
“It endangers the public and completely abandons so many vulnerable Angelenos,” Hatami added.
Officials from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office could not be immediately reached for comment as of Tuesday evening.