A group of law enforcement unions and peace officer organizations hosted a debate and forum for candidates seeking to be the county’s top prosecutor, which is on the ballot in March, and then again in November if no candidate gets 50% plus one vote in the primary.
District Attorney George Gascón, who declined to attend, was harangued by all nine contenders, including members of his own office’s leadership, judges and former federal prosecutors.
Several brought up the special directives Gascón implemented on his first day in office and painted them as everything from “pro-criminal policies” to a “travesty” and the reason why the office is in chaos right now.
A spokesperson for Gascón’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding his decision not to appear.
With a crowded field, each of the nine candidates was given one minute to give their pitch, and then answered questions from KNX radio’s Pete Demetriou, including: What would they do to make the community safer?; How would they address a growing caseload with limited resources?; How would they handle the challenges of repeat offenders with the legal limitations from Proposition 47?; How would they “address the homeless problem”?
The nine candidates who attended each started with a minute to give the audience their pitch:
- L.A. County Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta said she’s worked closely with law enforcement officials as a former prosecutor for 26 years in L.A. County and since 2016 from the bench, and said Gascón prioritizes criminals.
- Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Chemerinsky is a former prosecutor who served as chief of the Violent and Organized Crime Section of the Central District of California. He’s “running to prioritize public safety” and is a “strong believer in criminal justice reform.”
- L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami is a Valencia resident and 17-year veteran of the DA’s office, and a veteran who will prioritize public safety and implement “real reforms” and “stand with victims and survivors” in a way that his current boss has not.
- Former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Nathan Hochman criticized Gascón’s absence and said the public is crying for someone who will put their interests first rather than criminals. He said he could out-fundraise his opponents and then told Gascón his time is up.
- L.A. County Deputy District Attorney John McKinney, in charge of filing for East L.A. courthouse, said he has 25 years’ experience of speaking “truth to power” with experience prosecuting murderers and supporting victims, and said he was the most electable candidate on the stage.
- Retired Judge David Milton said he had more than 45 years of experience with the law, including time leading teams of lawyers and 24 years as a judge, during which time he condemned two men in capital murder cases and helped author death penalty statutes.
- L.A. County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell called Gascón’s policies a travesty and said an example of that was a case recently before him in which a man caught with 20 kilograms of meth was offered a deal from the DA’s office to serve three days in jail and probation.
- L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Maria Ramirez is a 33-year veteran of the office who said she couldn’t “stand by and watch the state of public safety get worse in L.A. County every day,” calling the office chaos now, but adding she has the know-how to make immediate change.
- L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Eric Siddall has 16 years of experience and said the office doesn’t have a mission, but as vice president of the prosecutors’ union he has the experience to make the changes necessary to restore confidence in the office.
Ramirez said the DA’s office has to be a part of the solution when it comes to homelessness, by recognizing the unhoused and incorporating solutions so that when people are released from sentences, they are put in programs with housing resources.
“What options are out there to educate them on what programs are out there?” she said, describing the type of help this population often needs.
“No one wants to criminalize homelessness and neither do I,” Siddall said, “but we also have to recognize public spaces are under siege and we have to protect those public spaces.”
Chemerinsky called homelessness “the greatest humanitarian crisis in our era,” and called the status quo unacceptable.
“But we can’t prosecute our way out of it, and we can’t criminalize poverty,” he added. “I think ultimately what we need is more permanent housing.” He said there is a jail-street cycle and mental health and addiction issues are often involved that must also be addressed.
“As district attorney, I’ll prioritize public safety, and what that means is if you’re homeless or not, if you’re committing violent crimes and you’re victimizing others, you should be held accountable for that,” Hatami said, “and we should make sure that we protect the public and protect vulnerable victims.”
He also said he planned to work with nonprofits and the system to support the needs of the homeless population, which includes resources for veterans, those with mental health concerns and those dealing with addiction.
Milton said the smash-and-grab petty thefts that have been subject of a recent countywide task force need to be dealt with properly.
“These smash-and-grabs aren’t petty thefts — they’re robberies,” Milton said, calling on the use of more enhancements in prosecutions that have largely been abandoned because of Gascón’s special directives.
“Gascón has instituted blanket policies that say that certain people who steal just under $950 will never be prosecuted,” Hochman said. “I would eliminate the blanket policies that have removed the individualized analysis from the greatest asset we have: our deputies, our investigators, our law enforcement partners.”
McKinney called for changing the laws to deal with the shortcomings of Prop. 47. Prop. 47, which became law in 2014, reduced the penalties for repeat offenders for a number of lower-level crimes and also reclassified a number of drug and property crimes as misdemeanors.
“I’ve got to work with the Legislature,” he said. “I’ve got to go to the other electeds in Los Angeles County and in Sacramento to see if we can get some momentum behind changing Prop. 47.”
McKinney said a true no-cash bail system under Senate Bill 10 would have a risk-assessment tool, and that decision should be left with the judge to use the tool. Siddall responded that bail is a constitutional right in the state, which is why changing that would be necessary to eliminate bail.
Archuleta said as a DDA she asked for reasonable bail and as a judge she imposed reasonable bail and said the basis must be case-by-case. “Blanket policies are a no-go, especially for cash-bail,” she added, calling them a risk to public safety.
Milton called the no-cash bail policy “unlawful” and said that judges have been able to create appropriate bail amounts through committee for years.
Hatami said that Gascón lacks actual prosecutorial experience, listing the myriad of different types of criminals he’s pursued.
In terms of the case backlog and the limited resources, Mitchell again cited the office’s leadership as the reason why so many prosecutors have left, and also believed any change would bring a solution.
“I think the day that Gascón clears out his desk and one of the people on this stage assumes his office, there is going to be an avalanche of people applying to the District Attorney’s Office,” he said, calling it the best job in the legal system and adding, “(Gascón) is why we have a problem.”
The candidates were given thumbs up and thumbs down signs, and all indicated they would support someone up on the stage Wednesday night if their own candidacy is unsuccessful.