ABA Journal: LA district attorney’s past drives his push forward for reform
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón knows how to cope with controversy. He faced it as police chief in Mesa, Arizona, when he clashed with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his hardline immigration policies. And as San Francisco’s top prosecutor, he riled law enforcement groups after pushing for a host of reforms.
Even so, more than seven months into Gascón’s new job as LA’s top prosecutor, resistance to his policies has reached dizzying peaks. Since beating the incumbent district attorney, Jackie Lacey, in the November 2020 general election, the 67-year-old faces a court challenge from the union that represents his own prosecutors and a recall effort that is gaining steam. With the national push for reform and rising gun violence and homicides in the foreground, advocates are watching closely to see how the high-stakes battle plays out.
Gascón wasted no time shaking things up. Soon after his December 7 swearing in, he announced sweeping directives to reduce prison terms, including thousands of old cases involving murder and other violent crimes as well as reforms to end cash bail and the death penalty. His stance as the “godfather of progressive prosecutors” has pleased activists who are among the 2 million-plus voters who chose him to head the largest district attorney’s office in the nation.
But the victims’ families leading the recall effort say Gascón is abusing the powers of his office. Desiree Andrade, a campaign organizer and spokesman for the Recall George Gascón campaign, is a registered Democrat. Andrade’s son Julian, then 20, was kidnapped then tortured and murdered in 2018. She says because of Gascón’s policies, her son’s killers will be eligible for parole rather than facing life in prison.
“You, George Gascón, have put criminals before victims. I truly believe you have confused your role as a district attorney and a public defender,” Andrade said at a May press conference to formally start a signature-gathering effort that has a long shot chance of leading to a recall election in 2022.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is one high-profile politician who joined the recall effort by adding his name to the petitions. The campaign will need 597,000 verified signatures by October for a recall election. Meanwhile, more than two dozen cities in California have given Gascón a vote of no confidence.
Amid the recall effort and the lawsuit, Gascón remains unfazed. He blames the pushback on old ways of thinking about the criminal justice system, particularly among prosecutors within his own office.
“They are addicted to high levels of incarceration and punishment,” Gascón says of the staff members who oppose his reforms. “They view themselves as the thin line between chaos and safety, and they think the best way they can help the community is by being punitive in their approach.”