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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Sam Levin in Los Angeles

LA’s progressive district attorney faces 11 challengers in criminal justice race. What’s at stake if he loses?

Man wearing sunglasses and black suit speaks
George Gascón speaks at a Los Angeles county Democratic party news conference in October 2020. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

George Gascón, the Los Angeles district attorney (LADA), is facing 11 challengers in a high-stakes primary next week that advocates for criminal justice reform across the US will be watching.

Gascón was elected to oversee the US’s largest district attorney’s office in 2020, ousting a longtime incumbent after pledging to prioritize police accountability and undo harms of mass incarceration. His win, on the heels of protests of George Floyd’s murder, established him as one of the most prominent progressive prosecutors in the US.

A former LAPD officer and San Francisco police chief, Gascón has followed through on many promises of significant reforms: declining to seek the death penalty; limiting the prosecution of youth as adults; exonerating wrongfully convicted people who spent decades in prison; frequently prosecuting officers; and undoing excessively long sentences.

Most of Gascón’s 11 opponents – including four prosecutors in his office, former federal prosecutors and current and former judges – have promised to reverse much of his agenda.

“This election is much more than a referendum on my work, it’s a referendum on reform work throughout the country,” Gascón said in an interview. “A few years ago, when people ran for these offices, it was generally a ‘lock everybody up’ message. It was almost inconceivable someone would run on a platform of public safety through a more thoughtful, equitable approach … that incarceration is not the answer to every social ill, that we have to look at the wrongdoings of the past and try to correct them.”

One of Gascón’s signature initiatives is a re-sentencing unit, which is aimed at giving second chances to some youth tried as adults and older people serving long prison terms. Roughly 240 people have received reduced sentences, his campaign said. None of those released have been convicted of a new offense.

Gascón has also brought 140 cases against police for a range of crimes, and has prosecuted more officers for shootings than the office had done in the two decades prior. That includes securing the first conviction for an on-duty shooting in 20 years; Andrew Lyons, one of two deputies who fatally shot Ryan Twyman, received a 30-day sentence for assault.

“[Gascón] did what he could do. It’s a start,” said Chiquita Twyman, Ryan’s sister. “It took a long time for me to trust him. My brother was killed by police, and to me, [Gascón] was part of the police family. I was afraid he’d just try to make a political thing out of my brother’s death. But I learned he is a stand-up guy.”

Twyman said she was concerned about the ferocious resistance Gascón has faced: “Every step we take to move forward to get justice, we get thrown back five or 10 steps. He’s just trying to give us families some accountability.”

Some of Gascón’s deputy DAs have openly opposed his policies, with many supporting failed efforts to recall him in the middle of his first term. The LA police union has blamed him for high-profile retail thefts, calling it a “George Gascón crime wave”. And some victims’ families and others concerned with crime and safety have called for a return to more punitive policies.

His opponents have attributed negative crime trends to Gascón, painting a dire picture of violence in LA. Last year saw a significant decrease in shootings and homicides in LA, but an uptick in property crimes amid rising car thefts. Homelessness and the fentanyl crisis continue to worsen in a humanitarian emergency that has caused anxiety and frustration among voters. Experts, however, emphasize it’s difficult to link crime rates, good or bad, to prosecutors’ policies since DAs act after crimes occur.

“We know that fearmongering works. Republicans have used it for generations,” said Gascón, who is frequently derided as a “woke” and “soft-on-crime” DA in New York Post and Fox News stories. “The facts and history are on our side – the challenge for us is to make sure that especially non-traditional voters who have a lot at stake in this race come out and vote.”

Mona Sahaf, director of reshaping prosecution at the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit that advocates for reforms, said roughly 20% of the US population now has a reform-minded DA in their jurisdiction. Gascón is unique among those DAs because of his extensive police background: “He can’t be painted with this stripe of, ‘He’s just against the blue.’ And he’s servicing a community where there’s been a lot of harm from police and the criminal legal system, going back to Rodney King.”

DAs dedicated to progressive policies have faced intense opposition across the country – San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, a former public defender, was recalled after two years, while reformers in Chicago, Philadelphia and St Louis have weathered backlash and been re-elected.

The challengers

The majority of LA voters are undecided, according to one poll, but Jonathan Hatami, an LA prosecutor endorsed by the police union, polled the highest behind Gascón. “The majority of Angelenos feel unsafe for whatever reason – if they’ve seen it on TV or experienced it. They feel scared to wear jewelry or sit outside and drink coffee. They feel afraid to go to their car at night to open their trunk. They feel afraid to pump gas,” Hatami said. “They don’t want to go shopping at the mall because they see all the smash-and-grab burglaries.” He noted a surge in homicides at the start of Gascón’s tenure, mirroring pandemic-era trends across the country, but acknowledged violent crime had gone down.

Hatami, who publicly criticized Gascón’s policies his first month in office, said he broadly supported Gascón’s efforts to keep youth in juvenile court and his police accountability efforts, though he said it seemed the DA had gone too far in promoting police prosecutions: “You don’t need to go in front of the media every single police case because you give the impression police are running around like criminals all over the place … and tells the police they have a different standard than everybody else.”

Candidate Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor who has touted $2m in fundraising, more than any other candidate, said he was running because Gascón’s policies amount to the “most pro-criminal directives” in LADA history. He cited Gascón’s opposition to charging “enhancements”, which lengthen defendants’ sentences based on factors like alleged gang affiliation. Gascón also opposes charging “three strikes”, which leads to life sentences for some people convicted of three felonies; enhancements have been found to exacerbate racial disparities and lead to indefinite prison terms for minor offenses, and reformers point to research suggesting more severe punishments don’t deter crime.

“The criminals are 100% paying attention,” Hochman said. “If you went ahead and reinstituted the filing of enhancements, you’re not going to stop violent crime overnight, but you will definitely affect the people who are watching the law,” he argued.

While the candidates have largely pledged to reject Gascón’s agenda, Jeff Chemerinsky, a former federal prosecutor, has positioned himself as the “only challenger in the race who consistently talks about the need for reform”, saying he agrees with the DA’s opposition to the death penalty. But he criticized Gascón’s implementation of reforms as being too “abrupt and inflexible” and noted his poor approval ratings:

“There’s a real risk that someone like a rightwinger could win and there could be a Republican district attorney. I’m running to keep this a Democrat seat.”

Craig Mitchell, an LA judge challenging Gascón, said he would ramp up prosecutions for drug possession in response to the addiction crisis, saying he believed an increase in arrests would get more people into treatment.

Hochman, Chemerinsky, Hatami and Eric Siddall (another LADA prosecutor, who is endorsed by the deputy DA union), have all raised more funds than Gascón as of Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The other candidates are current LADA prosecutors Maria Ramirez and John McKinney; LA judge Debra Archuleta (also endorsed by the police union); David Milton, a retired judge; Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson, a deputy DA in neighboring San Bernardino; and Dan Kapelovitz, a defense attorney endorsed by the Green party.

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