He’s Remaking Criminal Justice in L.A. But How Far Is Too Far?

Last December, when George Gascón took over the largest local prosecutor’s office in the country, he made a complete break from the past. His inaugural speech as district attorney of Los Angeles County at once thrilled progressive activists and alienated many of the lawyers sizing up their new boss. Standing alone at a lectern as a pandemic precaution, Gascón put his hands to his forehead and half-bowed, yogi-style, to thank the judge who swore him in over a video connection. He flashed a smile and spoke in Spanish, his first language as a child growing up in Cuba, to honor his mother, who fled Fidel Castro’s Communist rule with his father and Gascón when he was 13.

Switching to English, Gascón, who is 67, acknowledged his long career in law enforcement. “You know, it was 40 years ago when I walked my first beat as a young Los Angeles police officer,” he said. “However, I am not the same man I was when I first put on the uniform.”

Then Gascón leveled an all-out attack on the status quo. The new district attorney described being arrested as “traumatic and dehumanizing,” lifting his hands for emphasis. “Our rush to incarcerate generations of kids of color,” he said, has torn apart “the social fabric of our communities.” Signaling that the police should expect new scrutiny, Gascón promised to review fatal shootings in the county by officers, going back to 2012.

He turned the argument for the “tough-on-crime approach” of other local law-enforcement leaders on its head, blaming their strategy for an eight-year rise in violent crime. He accused his opponents of making “unfounded and self-serving claims” about how more punishment increases public safety. “The status quo hasn’t made us safer,” he said, jabbing his fingers into the air.


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