The union representing Los Angeles County prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday challenging newly seated District Attorney George Gascon’s directives to eliminate three-strikes allegations and some sentencing enhancements, alleging that they are “unlawful.”
The Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County contends that the directives — handed down the day the county’s top prosecutor was sworn into office just over three weeks ago — violate state law.
A directive that calls for dismissing, withdrawing or not filing special circumstance allegations that could result in a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole for defendants charged with murder is among those targeted in the lawsuit, which also challenges Gascon’s directive to dismiss gang enhancements and firearm allegations that can add more time to prison sentences.
“While an elected district attorney has wide discretion in determining what charges to pursue in an individual case, that discretion does not authorize him or her to violate the law or to direct attorneys representing the District Attorney’s Office to violate the law,” ADDA President Michele Hanisee said.
The suit alleges that Gascon, “within weeks of his investiture as Los Angeles County’s district attorney, has issued special directives that are not merely radical, but plainly unlawful. They command the deputy district attorneys of respondent Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to violate California’s constitution and laws.”
Gascon “may not ignore, but must enforce California’s mandatory sentencing laws,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges that the Los Angeles Superior Court is “both empowered and obligated to enjoin this abuse of discretion” by declaring the challenged directives “illegal and unenforceable.”
In a jointly issued statement Tuesday, a trio of legal experts from Northern California said they are “confident this attempt to obstruct the will of the voters will be struck down.”
“The deputy district attorneys association’s concern over striking enhancements is inconsistent with their decades-long silence when former district attorneys often dismissed enhancements and three-strikes allegations in the interests of justice,” said UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Stanford Law School professor David Mills and Michael Romano, director of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project.
“That the association now claims the practice to be unlawful is more reflective of their longstanding opposition to reform and the will of millions of Angelenos than it is the legality of D.A. Gascon’s directives,” the statement says. “D.A. Gascon’s policies will enhance health and safety in Los Angeles and begin a much needed process to reduce epidemic levels of mass incarceration.”
Gascon bowed to pressure fewer than two weeks ago by amending his directive to eliminate sentencing enhancements and instead allow them in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified “extraordinary” circumstances. He said then that his office would seek sentencing enhancements in hate crimes, crimes against children and the elderly, and other crimes that meet certain criteria.
Gascon met significant resistance both from within and outside the District Attorney’s Office in connection with the directives that were issued Dec. 7, the day he was sworn into office after defeating two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey in a runoff election.
“Nearly all of the concerns I have heard center around my policy of ending all enhancements,” Gascon wrote in a letter released Dec. 18. “To be responsive to your input, I have decided to make some adjustments to my initial directives.”
The revised policy came after extensive discussions with crime victims, their advocates, members of the community and career prosecutors in his office, the county’s top prosecutor said.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League issued a blistering statement in response, calling Gascon a mere “politician” rather than an experienced prosecutor.
“George Gascon is providing a MasterClass on the dangers of a politician running the D.A.’s office instead of an experienced prosecutor,” the statement read. “It took a national outcry for him to understand that child rapists, human traffickers and perpetrators of violent hate crimes should spend some more time behind bars. Yet he’s still willing to go easy on gang members who terrorize our neighborhoods or criminals that shoot cops in the back of the head. He still doesn’t get that crime victims need an authentic voice for justice, not a politician that says one thing and does another — we have enough of those.”
The amended policy addresses concerns raised by vulnerable victims — children, the elderly and groups that are targeted because of their actual or perceived race or ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender or mental or physical disability.
The office, however, will continue with its policy to cease seeking gang and other sentencing enhancements, including those made available to prosecutors by California’s 1994 “three strikes” law. There are more than 100 enhancements in California’s penal code.
“Over-incarceration — the practice of sending people to jails and prisons for too long — does not enhance safety,” the district attorney said shortly after being sworn into office. “It actually hurts our safety.”
Gascon, a former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief and former San Francisco district attorney, called gang and other sentencing enhancements “a principal driver of mass incarceration.”
“They are outdated, incoherent and applied unfairly,” he said. “Plus, no compelling evidence exists that they improve public safety.”
Research indicates that people who serve excessive sentences are more likely than those who serve proportional sentences with a rehabilitative or restorative purpose to commit crimes when they are returned to the community, creating more victims in the future, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Gascon — who told reporters earlier this month that he had a “mandate from the public” and intended to “follow that mandate” — said that tough-on-crime policies of the past “undermine rehabilitation, exacerbate racial and other inequities in our justice system and they decimate families and communities. They also are crowding jails and prisons and exacerbating the COVID pandemic behind bars.”
Black Lives Matter Los Angeles released a statement in support of Gascon on Wednesday, saying Angelenos elected him “because they want transformative change, which means an end to mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and a system that unjustly criminalizes, targets and harshly penalizes Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color.”
“Gascon ran and won on a platform of progressive change that reaffirms the presumption of innocence and restorative approaches to the criminal legal system, values that are at the core of social justice and civil rights. Chief among the reforms are an end to sentencing enhancements and punitive sentencing — like three-strikes — which has been used to harm Black defendants and communities disproportionately,” the statement reads.
“… Police and Deputy District Attorney Associations are working to undermine the will of the people and democracy in order to preserve a fundamentally unjust system that overcriminalizes Black people and other marginalized groups. This effort directly counters the will of the people, professional ethics, and the law.”