Candidates for the office of Los Angeles County district attorney gave their thoughts on rising crime, how to deal with homelessness and what their top priority would be once in office on Thursday evening in a debate streamed live on YouTube via Los Angeles Magazine.
The debate saw 10 candidates take the stage: the incumbent, George Gascón; Jeff Chemerinsky, formerly an assistant United States attorney; Jonathan Hatami, a deputy district attorney; Nathan Hochman, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor; David Milton, a retired judge; John McKinney, a deputy district attorney; Craig Mitchell, a longtime judge; María Ramirez, a deputy district attorney; Eric Siddall, a deputy district attorney; and Debra Archuleta, a Superior Court judge.
Candidates were provided with 30 seconds to answer each question — though some were allowed to go slightly past that — and rebuttals were allowed on a discretionary basis.
The debate was moderated by Elex Michaelson, a news anchor for FOX 11, and Jon Regardie, a Los Angeles Magazine writer.
Many of the candidates used their time to show how Gascón has not delivered on his promise to use reforms to make L.A. County a safer place.
Hatami, a Santa Clarita resident, said his first steps as district attorney would be “exactly the opposite of what George Gascón has done.”
“We have a society right now in Los Angeles who feels really unsafe,” Hatami said. “They feel unsafe going to the supermarket or going to the mall. They feel unsafe going to the beach. They feel unsafe walking with their children or walking their dog.”
Public safety was a big talking point throughout the debate. When asked if he believes that his directives have helped to make the county safer, Gascón, who spent two terms as the district attorney for San Francisco before taking the position in L.A. County in 2020, was adamant that clearing out prisons and addressing inequalities in the justice system are paramount to a 21st-century approach to social and criminal justice.
“The work that we started to do in L.A. is showing results,” Gascón said. “One of the biggest problems that we have in our system is the inequality and the high levels of recidivism that are the result of a lot of the work that people on this stage have engaged in for years, that has created one of the highest incarceration rates of any nation in the world. We are showing that we can hold people accountable and that we can be safe at the same time.”
Milton, who said he’s different from the other candidates because he is a Republican in the Democrat-dominated field for the nonpartisan office, took things in a different direction, saying he would work toward filling the district attorney’s office with another 250 prosecutors to bring it back to the 1,000-plus that it used to have.
“We need to rebuild the DA’s office,” Milton said. “If we’re actually going to do the mission of prosecuting people and keeping people safe, we need to rebuild it … I’m going to restore the mission of the office, which is to protect the public, then we’re going to hire people, and then we’re going to also have a crime reduction strategy, a strategy that focuses on the drivers of crime.”
Much of the back-and-forth on crime centered on Proposition 47. Co-authored by Gascón and passed by voters in 2014, it turned non-violent property crimes, in which the value of the crime does not exceed $950, into misdemeanors.
Opponents of the proposition, which included nearly every candidate except for Gascón, Chemerinsky and Archuleta, stated that it needs to be amended to allow for repeat offenders to be prosecuted.
In his rebuttal, Gascón argued that he has directed his deputies to prosecute violent crimes, but that going after non-violent crimes, especially those involving people with a history of mental health or substance abuse issues, would not solve the problem. He added that many of the prosecutions that other candidates were calling for were already being done, including organized retail theft.
“We have to understand, first of all, that misdemeanors continue to be a crime, and Prop. 47 has not legalized theft,” Gascón said.
While Gascón touted his efforts against organized retail theft, Hochman pointed out that the DA was not invited to be a part of a press conference held by L.A. Mayor Karen Bass when she created the city’s organized retail crime task force, though L.A. Police Chief Michael Moore and L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna were.
“Because he actually symbolizes the opposite of going after organized retail crime,” Hochman said. “I would join the bipartisan effort to modify Proposition 47 because, in particular, when you have a DA that tells juveniles, ‘We will not prosecute misdemeanor theft,’ it is basically a license to steal for juveniles just under $950.”
Spinning the question somewhat around, Archuleta argued that Prop. 47 is not the problem. Instead, Archuleta said, it is the person in charge of prosecuting.
Archuleta blamed Gascón in her attack on retail theft, saying his refusal to prosecute the more than 14,000 misdemeanor cases on his desk is the reason that crime continues to rise.
“We have an ideologically driven DA who refuses to follow the law as it is currently written,” Archuleta said. “He misapplies Prop. 47 because it does not comport with his ideology and his narrative.”
Hatami, who is married to a detective in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said the DA’s office should be working closer with police forces rather than targeting law enforcement as the problem. He also argued that the threshold in which a misdemeanor becomes a felony needs to be lowered.
“We have a major issue with smash-and grab-burglaries, we have a major issue with organized retail theft,” Hatami said. “So, that threshold needs to come down. No. 2, we have a major big problem with repeat offenders, individuals who keep getting arrested for the same thing and getting released, arrested and released.”
Mitchell, who founded the Skid Row Running Club to give homeless people overcoming substance abuse a way to have a supportive community, said addressing the homelessness crisis is essential. His plan would be to offer homeless people with drug charges a choice: go into treatment or go into custody.
“Having sat on the bench and dealt with hundreds of these cases, when that is presented to an addict, 95% of the people say, ‘OK judge, I will give treatment a chance,’” Mitchell said.
Many of the other candidates agreed with that point, that cleaning up the streets revolves around treating people with mental health or substance abuse issues.
Milton, however, argued that the DA does not have the jurisdiction to address homelessness, except for when homeless people commit a crime.
“It’s only if one of the people who fall within that class commit a crime, does the district attorney have jurisdiction to do anything,” Milton said. “Otherwise, a district attorney is powerless to do anything about homelessness.”
Most of the candidates disagreed with that point, including McKinney, who said “homelessness is the humanitarian crisis of our time.”
“We have a role to play because so many homeless people do come within the jurisdiction of the district attorney’s office, either as offenders or as victims,” McKinney said. “And when they come within our jurisdiction, we have the ability to use diversion and other laws to guide them inside, to guide them into places where they can get the services that they need.”
Nearly everyone else on the stage agreed with the point, with some nuance as to how closely the DA should be working with local and county services.
To view the debate in its entirety, visit tinyurl.com/ycy2ed4r. The March primary is set for March 5.