Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia spoke out Monday in support of District Attorney George Gascon and his plans to reform the criminal justice system.
“On May 25, 2020, we witnessed a murder and heard cries to end systemic racism in the criminal legal system. That day, a social movement erupted across the nation,” Garcia said, referring to George Floyd’s in-custody death in Minneapolis.
“The eyes of many opened to a stark reality that Black and brown people live with every day: racism thrives in our criminal legal system,” he said. “Diverse communities stood side by side to rail against a system that silences, dehumanizes and over-incarcerates brown and Black people. Angelenos spoke up, we can never again continue with business as usual; systemic racism must be called out and stopped.”
Garcia argued that demand for change is not new and highlighted changes already underway in the juvenile justice system to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“We know the system is broken and we can fix it,” Garcia said. “The district attorney’s new directives are being called revolutionary, but there is nothing novel about the presumption of innocence our Constitution demands for every person accused of a crime.”
At his swearing-in ceremony, Gascon said his office would no longer pursue the death penalty, try juveniles as adults, seek cash bail for misdemeanor and non-serious, non-violent felonies, or add gang and other enhancements to criminal complaints.
Gascon has since gotten push-back from his own prosecutors, judges, police and victims of crime, leading him to accuse critics of fear-mongering. Then on Friday, he stepped back from a complete ban on sentencing enhancements, saying he would allow prosecutors to seek greater penalties in cases including children, the elderly and hate-motivated crimes, while eliminating gang and other allegations that lead to stiffer penalties.
“I recognize there are some victims that want this office to seek the maximum sentence permissible in their case, but punishment must be in the community’s best interest, proportional, and it must serve a rehabilitative or restorative purpose,” Gascon said in a letter to the Los Angeles County community.
In his own comments, Garcia focused first on Gascon’s promise to eliminate cash bail.
“Excessive bail is not about safety. It’s not about protecting our community from dangerous people; it is a two-tier system that protects those who have the means to pay regardless of the accusation. The cash bail system keeps the poor in jail simply because they can’t afford the bail, not based on a level of dangerousness,” the public defender said.
Garcia argued that community-based programs can help ensure that pretrial defendants return to court as required, without putting potential innocent people at risk of losing their jobs or worse.
“People lose their jobs and their homes; many end up on our streets, vulnerable to the ravages of homelessness. Over 70% of the 66,436 unhoused men and women in Los Angeles are justice-involved,” Garcia said. “We cannot afford to deny that the criminal legal system failed them and made their situation worse.”
The public defender also pointed to two studies by the RAND Corp. that found that thousands of those in county jail should instead be treated in community-based mental health programs.
Garcia said Los Angeles voters understand and want to end racial inequities in the justice system.
“It is unconscionable that while African Americans are 9% of our community, they represent 30% of the people in the Los Angeles jails, he said. “The people of Los Angeles elected George Gascon to be the District Attorney for their county. They did so with full knowledge that he would commit the office of the District Attorney to the reforms that this community demands.
“As the Los Angeles County Public Defender, I endorse the will of the people of Los Angeles County, and fully support all efforts that promise enduring justice reform, equity and an end to racial injustice.”