Help Wanted: Seeking a Prosecutor, Not a Professional Politician

\By Ryan Erlich

For the last year, District Attorney George Gascon has pursued two related goals. First, send as few people to prison or jail as possible. Also first, let as many people out of jail or prison as quickly as possible.

When you view his first year in office through this lens, everything suddenly makes sense: his staffing picks; his permissive sentencing directives; his let-‘em-out-now, ask-questions-later approach to re-sentencing and post-conviction litigation; his reckless bail policies; his refusal to send prosecutors to parole hearings; and his callous arrogance toward victims and their loved ones.

Do you know what else makes sense? The fallout.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that homicides in the City of Los Angeles are up 46.7% this year compared with 2019. The number of shooting victims is up 51.4%. As of November 30, “there had been 359 homicides in L.A. in 2021, compared with 355 in all of 2020. There have not been more homicides in one year since 2008, which saw 384.”

This mindless and tragic violence touches every community. Its victims are young and old, rich and poor, black and white and brown. And so are the perpetrators.

When Los Angeles magazine asked Gascon if his policies contributed to these record-breaking increases, he declined to respond.

I’m not blaming George Gascon alone for this historic rise in crime. That wouldn’t be fair.

The so-called “drivers” or “root causes” of criminality are too broad, too complex, and too deep to lay at the feet of any one person, even someone who, without a trace of humility, calls himself “the Godfather of progressive prosecutors.”

But I am blaming George Gascon for refusing to do anything about it.

And it’s not like he hasn’t had the opportunity.

Gascon likes to remind us that he beat incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey by approximately 265,000 votes and took office with a “mandate.”

What did Gascon do with that valuable, once-in-a-career political capital?

Did he push the County’s Board of Supervisors to fully fund mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, or reentry services for recently released parolees? No.

Did he use his influence to back efforts in Washington and Sacramento to expand early childhood education, job training programs, or affordable housing in Los Angeles? No.

When smash-and-grab robberies rocked retailers from Beverly Hills to Lakewood, did he join local and federal law enforcement leaders and tell us how he would stop it? No. In fact, he was a noticeable no-show.

He apparently has other priorities.

Like convincing the County to transfer four public defenders, each a campaign supporter, to the District Attorney’s office in violation of civil service rules. Like giving those same public defenders the authority to resolve serious cases, including cases they handled while they were public defenders. Like expediting releases for repeat and violent offenders. Like retaliating against a career public prosecutor who chose to follow the law instead of the leader. (This last decision cost County taxpayers more than $800,000.)

So, where does that leave us?

“There’s work to be done and we need to do the work,” Mike Lawson, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Urban League, told LA Times columnist Erika D. Smith this week.

Every single deputy district attorney would agree.

Our work is in court. To prosecute those who break the law. To hold them accountable. To support and, if necessary, to speak for and on behalf of survivors and their families. To ensure that defendants, especially those who suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse disorders, follow the terms and conditions of their court-ordered treatment programs. Writ large, our work is to seek the truth and to do justice for every victim, every defendant, every day, in every case.

Gascon has tied our hands. He has taken away our discretion to charge, resolve, and try many of our cases. Those who question him are demoted, transferred or punished.

It shouldn’t be that way. And it doesn’t have to be.

At its best, our work doesn’t — and shouldn’t — involve partisan politics or ideological litmus tests. Fox News viewers aren’t the only people who want safe streets, safe communities, or a prosecutor who follows the law. And you don’t have to be a New York Times subscriber to believe that our criminal justice system should hold people accountable for what they’ve done, not because of who they are, where they came from, or what they look like. You’re not a Neanderthal if you think a decades-long or even lifetime sentence is an appropriate and proportional punishment for a convicted murderer. And you’re not a pushover if you support diversion and court-supervised treatment for repeat drug offenders.

I suspect many people in Los Angeles County agree. And if you’re one of them, we need your help.

Gascon often says that that “you can’t cure cancer with a hammer.” It’s his way of suggesting that prosecution, incarceration, and accountability (the hammers) are poor treatments for crime (the cancer).

And I agree: you can’t cure cancer with a hammer. But Gascon’s head-in-the-sand, I’m-always-right approach isn’t curing anyone. It’s harming people.

For the better part of a year, he has been doing the criminal justice equivalent of wheeling cancer patients from the oncology ward to the hospital parking lot, handing them a lollipop, wishing them the best of luck, and shooing them off into the darkness.

He has spent more time pursuing his top two priorities — sending fewer people into custody, moving more people out of custody (ready or not) — than tackling what others refer to as the “root causes” or “drivers” of crime. And now we’re all paying the price for that choice.

Crime happens. At the very least, we should try not to make it any worse. Personal safety — for our neighbors, our children, and our communities — is a first-order concern. All of us want — and deserve — to live and work in a safe place. Daily life is tough enough as it is. But thanks to Gascon, we’re qualitatively and quantitatively less safe than we were last year at this time.

Gascon is not a prosecutor, although he plays one on TV. But he is a seasoned politician who is especially concerned with his own public image and political standing.

So pressure him.

Call his office. Send him an email. Post your thoughts on social media. Call your County Supervisor, your City Council member, or your local state or federal representative. Tell them how you feel and ask for their help. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors about what’s happening across our county, in your community, and in our state. Write a letter to your local paper. Listen, educate, organize, and act.

Tell him to modify his directives so that they protect everyone, not just those who break the law.

Tell him to do his job or, at the very least, ask him to let us do ours.

Together, we can change the course we’re on. And we must… before we lose yet another life to this mindless violence.

Ryan Erlich is a Deputy District Attorney and a Director of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.

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